Members of the House of Representatives in the US recently introduced the Wildlife Conservation and Anti-Trafficking Act. This Act would require federal agencies to implement whistleblower awards to give to those who blow the whistle on illegal wildlife trafficking. This would strengthen and expand the kinds of whistleblower awards available to wildlife and environmental whistleblowers. There are already environmental whistleblower awards offered under the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Improvement Act, and the Lacey Act. This newly introduced Bill would, if becoming an Act with the full force of law, make wildlife trafficking a federal criminal offense under racketeering and organized crime statutes. This would enable plaintiffs to file actions against recidivist wildlife traffickers under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, more commonly known as RICO, is a federal law that was enacted in 1970 to combat organized crime. The law allows private citizens to file lawsuits against individuals or organizations who engage in racketeering activity.
RICO is a complex law that has both criminal and civil components. The criminal side of RICO makes it illegal to engage in a pattern of racketeering activity. This includes activities such as bribery, extortion, money laundering, and mail fraud. To be convicted of violating RICO, the government must prove that the defendant committed two or more of these crimes and that they did so as part of an ongoing enterprise.
The civil side of RICO allows private citizens to sue individuals or organizations who have engaged in racketeering activity. To succeed in a RICO lawsuit, plaintiffs must prove that the defendants committed at least two acts of racketeering and that these acts caused them to suffer some type of financial loss. If successful, plaintiffs can recover treble damages, which means they can receive three times the amount of their actual losses.
The RICO law provides for both criminal and civil penalties, but it is primarily enforced by the federal government. The Department of Justice has a special unit, known as the Organized Crime Section, that is dedicated to investigating and prosecuting RICO cases. This section has been successful in prosecuting numerous high-profile cases, including those against the Mafia and other organized crime syndicates.
Although RICO was originally designed to target organized crime, it has since been used to prosecute a wide variety of defendants. In recent years, RICO lawsuits have been filed against corporations, politicians, and even professional athletes. As long as there is evidence of a pattern of racketeering activity, anyone can be sued under RICO.
This new Wildlife Bill, if passed, arguably could be used by the government and civil plaintiffs to go after organized criminal gangs engaging in illegal wildlife trafficking.