Criminal gang activity has always been an important target of local, state, and federal law enforcement efforts. The federal government has dozens of criminal statutes that it uses to prosecute those involved in gang-related crimes, and agencies such as the FBI and ICE are constantly investigating, arresting, and in cooperation with the Justice Department, prosecuting alleged gang members. The Department of Justice has created the National Gang Center to provide information and resources for law enforcement agencies across the country as well as for a wide range of community groups working to stop gang activity by minors as well as adults.
The Federal Street Gang Statute
One starting place when looking at laws directed at prosecuting gang-related crimes is the Federal Street Gang statute, 18 U.S.C. §521, which defines a “criminal street gang” as being “an ongoing group, club, organization, or association of 5 or more persons” who meet certain set criteria. One of the group's primary purposes must be to commit a certain type of crime, namely Federal offenses involving illegal drugs; violent crimes involving the use of physical force against the victims; human trafficking or sexual exploitation crimes; or to conspire to commit any of these.
To be penalized under the Federal Street Gang statute, you have to be involved in the gang knowing that its members have committed a “continuing series” of the listed crimes; you have to intend to “maintain or increase” your position in the gang or to help the gang continue its criminal behavior, and you have to have been convicted of certain federal or state felonies within the past five years or have participated in a conspiracy to commit those felonies.
If you meet all of those criteria, any sentence you receive for committing the underlying crimes will be increased by up to ten years. This means that the Federal Street Gang statute is used as a sort of “tag-along” crime, one that increases the penalties you face for committing another crime while acting as part of a gang.
Other Federal Statutes Used to Fight Gang Crime
Because the Federal Street Gang statute adds penalties for violating other statutes, defendants will typically be charged with other crimes as well. There are a number of federal criminal statutes that tend to be regularly used against alleged gang members. Some of these are listed below.
The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (“RICO”) statutes can provide a powerful way for prosecutors to bring charges against one or more gang members for committing a wide range of criminal gang-related acts. To be convicted of a RICO offense, a defendant must have participated in a “pattern of racketeering activity” that is connected in some way to an “enterprise.” The law defines a wide range of crimes that can make up this “racketeering activity,” and in gang-related cases, the gang is very often the “enterprise.”
Penalties for violating RICO include jail terms of up to 20 years and forfeiture of assets or proceeds obtained as a result of the racketeering activity.
Groups involved in criminal activity, such as illegal drug or arms sales that tend to bring in large amounts of cash, are often also guilty of violating the federal money laundering statute, 18 U.S.C. §1956. The statute makes it a crime to knowingly use the proceeds of criminal activity to continue that activity or avoid paying federal taxes on it, hide the source of the illegally-derived funds, or avoid federal or state transaction reporting requirements. Those convicted of money laundering are typically caught using shell companies or cooperating individuals to hide the proceeds of criminal activity from the authorities by moving them to accounts and countries that conceal the true sources of the funds.
Penalties are severe and include a fine of up to $500,000 or two times the value of the money involved (whichever is greater) and up to twenty years in prison.
Mail and Wire Fraud
The federal mail and wire fraud statutes are very broad and are often part of a series of criminal charges brought against gang members. The mail fraud statute criminalizes the use of the postal service as part of a scheme to defraud or get money or property from someone else by fraudulent means; the wire fraud statute essentially makes the same acts criminal, but instead of the mail, the statute criminalizes the use of “wire communications” – essentially by phone or the Internet.
Both crimes are punishable by a fine of up to $250,000 and up to twenty years in prison, more under certain circumstances.
Crimes of Violence
There are a number of federal crimes of violence that federal prosecutors often file against alleged gang members due in part to the violent nature of many criminal gangs. These include certain types of killings that violate the federal murder statute or that are committed “in aid of racketeering activity;” carjacking with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, and using violence or threats of violence to interfere with interstate commerce (by robbery or extortion).
Many criminal gangs make, distribute, or sell illegal drugs (or a combination of any of those). There are federal statutes that prohibit large-scale drug manufacturing and distribution, importing or exporting narcotics and other Controlled Substances, and attempts or conspiracies to commit any of these crimes. Depending on the gang situation, any of these federal crimes may be charged against alleged gang members.
Defending Against Charges
If you or a friend or loved one has been charged with any kind of gang-related crime, whether federal or state, it is important that you seek the advice of an experienced criminal attorney who can help explain what the charges mean and, more importantly, provide a vigorous and knowledgeable defense against the charges.
Many federal criminal charges are complicated and include the often difficult-to-prove requirement that the prosecution shows that you intended to commit the underlying crime. Joseph D. Lento has experience representing clients against these kinds of criminal charges. He has spent years in the trenches, defending clients in Pennsylvania and other states who have been charged with federal and state crimes, and he will make sure your rights both in and out of court are protected. Call Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm today at 888.535.3686 or by using the online contact form to connect with attorney Lento and find out how he can help.