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How Georgia Case's 'Racketeering' Became Criminalized

At a news conference, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis summed up the core of a grand jury indictment of Donald Trump and 18 others on conspiracy charges: “The defendants engaged in a criminal racketeering enterprise to overturn Georgia’s presidential election results.” Racketeering is one of dozens of offenses charged in the Georgia case, but it is the one with the most serious legal consequences under the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act modeled after the federal RICO Act. On both the federal and state level, antiracketeering laws are designed to combat organized crime by allowing prosecutors to charge a group of people if they can be shown to be engaging in a pattern of criminal activity as part of a shared enterprise. “Racketeering” will no doubt dominate headlines as the case makes its way through the Georgia court system, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The term’s boisterous origins start off with the emergence of the word “racket” in English in the 16th century when it first was used for loud disturbances and general disorder. By the 18th century, “racket” was extended to loud protests, exuberant social gatherings, and the hustle and bustle of society in general. The extension of “racket” to petty crimes may have had to do with the noisy disturbances that teams of thieves used to distract their victims. It may also have been influenced by the term's use in tennis, because “rackets” were seen as a kind of “game,” also applied to criminal endeavors. It wasn’t until the Prohibition era that “racket” became firmly linked to organized crime. A March 1924 Chicago Tribune article spoke of a bootlegger who “had decided to quit the ‘racket’ and go into legitimate business.” The next month, the Tribune reported on the mob funeral of Al Capone’s brother Frank, killed in a police shootout: “all manner of ‘racketeers’” were in attendance. Adding the “-eer” suffix created a term for someone engaged in illicit schemes. It was then turned into a verb, with “racketeering” coming to refer to such crimes as loan-sharking and extorting protection money. When the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act was enacted into federal law in 1970, the acronym “RICO” seemed like a callback to Prohibition days. Rico was the name of the gangster portrayed by Edward G. Robinson in the classic 1931 gangster movie “Little Caesar.”


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