Being involved with a criminal street gang can lead to serious legal consequences. Not only will you have to face prosecution for the crimes you allegedly committed, but the government can also prosecute you for being a gang member or criminal organization.
The federal government defines a criminal street gang as a group, club, or organization containing five or more members whose primary purpose is committing illegal activity. The members of the gang must have engaged in criminal activity within the previous five years, and the organization can operate locally, nationally, or internationally.
Although the government does not have gang affiliation laws, per se, you can receive enhanced penalties if prosecutors successfully show you were a member of a gang or criminal organization when you committed your alleged crime.
If you have been arrested for any type of crime, and prosecutors are trying to link you to a gang or criminal organization, you need a full evaluation of your case from an experienced federal criminal defense attorney. You should also understand how the federal government can prosecute you for your alleged involvement in gang crimes as well as some possible options for your defense.
Federal Law Regarding Street Gangs and Organized Crime
Criminal gangs or organizations can range from local street gangs to large international entities, such as the Mafia and drug cartels. They also include motorcycle gangs like the Hells Angels and prison gangs like the Aryan Brotherhood and the Nuestra Familia. Regardless, the organization's primary purpose must be to regularly engage in criminal activity, whether for profit or other reasons.
The RICO Act
In an attempt to combat organized crime in the United States, the government passed the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). This expansive law allows the federal government to prosecute “anyone employed by or associated with any enterprise” that is engaged in a pattern of criminal activity, or racketeering. Racketeering refers to repeatedly committing any serious felony offense over time, such as any of the following:
- Drug trafficking
- Human trafficking
- Weapons trafficking
- Murder, attempted murder, or manslaughter
- Blackmail and extortion
- Credit card fraud
- Bank fraud
- Securities fraud
- Mail and wire fraud
- Computer hacking
- Money laundering
- Loan sharking
The law also includes crimes related to the sexual exploitation of children, transporting stolen vehicles across state or international lines, and attempting to obstruct a federal criminal investigation.
Further, crimes can be prosecuted under RICO if they affect interstate or foreign commerce. Additionally, the members must have engaged in a continuing series of crimes over the past five years, and anyone who violates two or more of the 35 offenses referred to in the act within the past 10 years can face RICO prosecution.
You can also be charged for just attempting or conspiring to commit the crimes.
Penalties for Gang Crimes
Penalties for gang crimes are complex because they are enhanced penalties for being a gang member. The maximum enhanced penalty is an additional ten years behind bars on top of what you receive for the other crime. However, prosecutors will have to show you committed the crime to further the activities of the gang or advance your position within the gang.
For instance, you can receive enhanced penalties for something as relatively benign as graffiti if prosecutors can prove you did so while a member of a gang.
More serious offenses, such as violent crimes and drug trafficking, carry harsh penalties, and the maximum prison sentence for conviction of RICO violations could be 20 years to life, with fines of up to $250,000. You may also have to forfeit any money or property you gained as a member of the criminal organization.
Defenses for Gang Crimes
In order to prosecute you for gang crimes, the government will have to prove the following beyond a reasonable doubt:
- You were a member of the gang.
- The primary function of the gang was criminal activity.
- You had the intention of promoting or furthering the felony criminal activity of the gang or moving up the ranks.
You can face prosecution for gang crimes and receive enhanced penalties if any of the following apply:
- You committed a drug crime or violent crime.
- The crime affected interstate or foreign commerce.
- You were convicted of a state or federal felony or drug crime within the past five years.
Although the federal government takes gang crimes seriously and prosecutes them aggressively, you have the right to defend yourself. However, for charges of gang crimes, you will need to defend yourself against the alleged crime along with your supposed involvement in the gang.
Several government agencies investigate suspected criminal gang activity, including the FBI, the DEA, ATF, and ICE. With so many agencies involved, the potential exists for errors or miscommunication to wrongfully implicate you in the crime and your alleged involvement in the gang.
Your defense options will depend on the fact and circumstances of your case, and you may be able to show that you were not a part of a gang or that gang members forced you to commit the act.
Other defense options can include false accusations, unlawful search and seizure, questionable investigation and interrogation tactics, and similar violations of your constitutional rights.
Even if you have no solid defense for the underlying crimes prosecutors have charged you with, you should still examine all your options for defending against being a member of a gang or criminal organization to avoid enhanced penalties.
Hire An Experienced Federal Defense Attorney
The federal government has many resources available to investigate and prosecute gang crimes, and prosecutors have numerous laws at their disposal to charge and prosecute you for the offense. As such, you need an attorney who has extensive knowledge of federal laws and can help you build the strongest defense possible.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento has defended many clients charged with gang crimes and other federal offenses. He can evaluate your case, advise you of your options, and help you defend yourself against the charges. Call the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 or fill out our contact form to request a confidential consultation.