Former President Donald Trump faces criminal charges in Georgia over allegations he broke an anti-organized crime law known as RICO.

In 1970, Congress passed the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act to fight organized crime, most notably the mafia. States, including Georgia, also passed their own versions of RICO.

“It allows a lot of different things to be pulled together into a single very serious criminal charge,” Clark Cunningham, a law professor at Georgia State University, told The Washington Post.

The federal law requires at least two underlying crimes and participation in a criminal enterprise over a long period of time.

The Georgia law, however, defines racketeering more broadly than the federal law does. It takes less to prove a pattern of unlawful conduct under the state statute than the federal one. Georgia’s RICO law does not require criminal enterprises to be long running and lists nearly 50 underlying crimes that qualify as racketeering, compared with 35 under its federal counterpart, Reuters reported.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks in the Fulton County Government Center during a news conference, Monday, Aug. 14, 2023, in Atlanta. Donald Trump and several allies have been indicted in Georgia over efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss in the state. | John Bazemore, Associated Press

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis charged Trump and 18 others with 41 counts, including racketeering charges, in connection with efforts to overturn that state’s 2020 election results under the Georgia law. It allowed prosecutors to combine several alleged crimes — conspiracy to defraud the state, false statements and writings, impersonating a public officer, forgery, computer theft and others, in this case.

According to the indictment, Trump and the others, including former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and lawyers Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman, refused to accept that Trump lost, and “knowingly and willfully” joined a conspiracy to unlawfully change the outcome of the election in favor of Trump.

A person convicted under the Georgia law faces five to 20 years in prison.

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When people “hear the word ‘racketeering,’ they think of ‘The Godfather,’” Willis told The New York Times. But the concept of racketeering “has been extended to include any kind of organization that engages in a pattern of prohibited criminal activity to accomplish its goals,” Cunningham said. 

Federally, RICO has been used against mob bosses who weren’t the ones directly committing the crimes but rather the orchestrators of a broader scheme. Prosecutors have also used the law to go after gang leaders and human traffickers.

Willis prosecuted more than two dozen Atlanta teachers for allegedly scheming to cheat on standardized test scores in 2014 under the law, Reuters reported. Attorneys for the teachers said Willis overreached by deeming Atlanta’s public school system a “criminal enterprise,” but the convictions held up on appeal.

“RICO is a tool that allows a prosecutor’s office and law enforcement to tell the whole story. We use it as a tool so they can have all the information they need to make a wise decision,” Willis said, per NPR. “The reason that I am a fan of RICO is I think jurors are very, very intelligent.”

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