The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, better known as “RICO,” was enacted to fight organized crime but has evolved into the bane of legitimate businesses. Along with criminal penalties that can only be enforced by federal prosecutors, RICO contains a provision allowing for civil lawsuits. The rewards for a successful civil RICO claim include mandatory treble damages and attorney’s fees. For this reason, civil RICO lawsuits have become a favorite of overzealous plaintiffs hoping to make headlines and scare legitimate businesses into quick settlements. And since private plaintiffs have a greater incentive to be “creative” than federal prosecutors, civil RICO cases often push the statute’s limits. But the Supreme Court’s recent decision in the infamous “Bridgegate” case, Kelly v. United States, may help decelerate this trend by limiting civil RICO claims in important ways.
In the Bridgegate case, three New Jersey state officials were charged with exacting political revenge against a local Democratic mayor for failing to endorse the Republican governor’s reelection bid. In what could have been a deleted scene from The Sopranos, the state officials ordered a “traffic study” that closed down some lanes for commuters in Fort Lee, New Jersey (the home of the Democratic Mayor) traveling across the George Washington Bridge into New York City. The “traffic study” had the predictable result of creating hours of gridlock that ensnared commuters, school buses, and even ambulances. That gridlock was, of course, the goal all along. In fact, upon hearing the news that the Democratic mayor would not endorse the Republican governor, one of the state officials emailed the other, advising: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Federal prosecutors felt that this was more than petty political retribution and charged the trio of state officials with criminal violations of the federal wire fraud statute, which makes it a crime to use interstate wires (such as telephones and email) to effect “any scheme or artifice to defraud, or for obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises.” 18 U.S.C. § 1343. One of the officials pleaded guilty, and the other two were convicted at trial. The convictions were later affirmed on appeal by the Third Circuit.
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