For those who have heard the term, “racketeering” may sound like something that Mafia-style mobsters engage in. Oklahoma is not ordinarily thought of as a state with a significant organized crime problem, so it may come as a surprise that the state has its own anti-racketeering statutes. What kinds of illegal activities these statutes cover has raised questions not only among the public but on occasion even within the state’s law enforcement community.

The Oklahoma anti-racketeering law is based on the federal government’s Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute, which is more commonly known as the RICO law. Consistent the the popular conception, the federal RICO law targets organized criminal activities that include things like illegal gambling, extortion, illegal drug dealing, loan sharking, theft of and fencing of stolen property as well as the use of the proceeds from such conduct to penetrate and corrupt legitimate businesses.

The federal law came into being because of the difficulty that prosecutors had in earlier times convicting the leadership structure of organized crime syndicates, because pre-RICO it was necessary — and often impossible — to establish that such leadership actually participated in the illegal behaviors themselves. Perhaps the classic example of this difficulty was exemplified by the 1920s gangster Al Capone, who was alleged to have organized a number of criminal enterprises that engaged in acts ranging from gambling to prostitution to murder, but was never convicted of any of these things (he was eventually sent to prison for tax evasion).

So if there is a federal RICO law already in place, why does Oklahoma have its own parallel RICO law? The best explanation is that the federal law is mainly concerned with interstate racketeering activities, but sometimes organized criminals may confine themselves to things that do not cross the state line.

Another question about Oklahoma’s RICO law is exactly what it applies to. A good example of this occasional uncertainty is the case of Glenn v. State, 2001 OK CR 15 (2001). Glenn involved the conviction of two people who were engaged in stealing cattle in Oklahoma and then selling the stolen cows. At trial the government successfully prosecuted the two for violations of the state RICO law as well as other crimes. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, however, reversed the RICO conviction because the acts of two cattle rustlers did not it the court’s opinion rise to the level of enterprise activity needed to invoke applicability of the RICO law.

The upshot of Glenn is that it may be possible for a zealous prosecuting attorney to push the state RICO law beyond its proper limits, which do not include what would ordinarily be considered as low-level crimes. While it is not essential for individual residents of the state to be familiar with the provisions of the RICO law and how the courts in Oklahoma apply it, such knowledge is important for criminal defense attorneys to possess in order to assess whether the prosecution is properly applying the law when it alleges RICO violations in state courts.