There's a festering problem in Florida's criminal justice system: some state prosecutors are misusing our state's racketeering laws to wring guilty pleas out of innocent people and petty criminals afraid of spending decades in prison for crimes they didn't commit.
Abuse is rampant of Florida's version of the federal government's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act; known more commonly by its acronym, RICO.
The federal version was created 40 years ago to fight the Mafia and the businesses and labor unions it controlled. Today in Jacksonville and elsewhere in Florida, prosecutors are attempting to use RICO laws to crush gangs. While gang-eradication is a worthwhile goal, the methods used to achieve it aren't so admirable.
People who are guilty of no more than knowing a gang member are being charged with racketeering - being part of a criminal organization - in order to get them to testify against friends or loved ones who might genuinely be guilty of criminal activities. These friends and family members face decades in prison if convicted under RICO laws. Rather than take their chances on justice, many come to plea agreements in which they take a few painful years in prison in exchange for their testimony.
In other cases, people who might be guilty of minor infractions or petty crimes are being charged with racketeering, again facing decades in prison if convicted. Additionally, many of the people being charged are not associated with any known gang members. Simply living in a neighborhood that contains gang activity should not implicate citizens in involvement with a gang or participation in gang crime.
A big problem with the method being used in Florida is that people who face decades in prison will say just about anything in order to avoid such a severe penalty. In many cases, they will tell lies in order to serve a couple of years in jail rather than face the possibility of going to trial with a sentence of 20 or 30 years or more on the line.
Justice isn't served when people commit perjury in order to avoid decades of prison after being unfairly accused of participating in organized crime.
Florida has tough anti-gang laws on the books now (example: someone convicted of being a gang leader can face life in prison). People convicted under these laws face enhanced penalties for their crimes and forfeiture of property and assets acquired during criminal activities.
Prosecutors in Jacksonville and around the state of Florida should stop abusing RICO laws to threaten innocent people, petty criminals and others uninvolved in gang activities.
For more information about the method currently being used by prosecutors, RICO laws and how you may be affected, please speak to a Florida criminal defense attorney.