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What Are the Federal Gang Laws?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Aug 19, 2022

The federal government considers participation in a criminal organization a severe offense. Regardless of your level of involvement within the group, prosecutors may attempt to charge you under one of the United States federal gang laws.

In addition to facing charges for the underlying crime (i.e., drug offenses), your connection to the gang can lead to further penalties.

What Are the Federal Gang Laws?

Getting involved in criminal street gang participation within the United States can have harsh consequences under federal laws. Gang members could face criminal charges for the underlying offense and additional penalties associated with an organized gang.

Organized crime groups usually operate in local neighborhoods but sometimes at a national level. Under various federal statutes, their activity can be prosecuted locally in a federal courtroom.

The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) describes a criminal street gang as three or more people identifying as a group to create an environment of fear or intimidation. Their primary function is to participate in illegal conduct using violence or intimidation to further their criminal goals.

Criminal organizations within the United States include local city street gangs, organized crime groups, motorcycle gangs, and state and federal prison gangs often operating inside a prison, such as the Mexican Mafia and the Aryan Brotherhood.

18 U.S.C. Chapter 26 is the federal statute addressing criminal street gangs, including 18 U.S.C. 521, which describes when you are considered to have participated in a street gang.

Suppose you have been charged or are under investigation for a gang-related offense. In that case, the information on this page from our federal criminal defense lawyers will help you know what to expect during your case.

What is the Definition of Gangs Under Federal Law?

Under 18 U.S.C. § 521, an individual's participation in a criminal street gang is defined by the following criteria:

  • The group consists of five or more people,
  • One of the primary functions of this group is to commit crimes,
  • Members of the group have continuously engaged in crimes for over five years,
  • The criminal activities of the group affect interstate or foreign commerce,
  • Federal violent crimes involving physical force,
  • Federal drug crimes carry a sentence of at least five years.

This definition allows a wide range of groups to be categorized as gangs. Most of them function locally, but specific criminal organizations have been known to operate on a much larger scale. Groups classified as criminal gangs under 18 U.S.C. § 521 include:

  • Organized crime groups,
  • National street gangs,
  • Local street gangs (often selling illegal drugs),
  • Motorcycle gangs,
  • Prison gangs,
  • Mafia,
  • White supremacist,
  • Mexican drug cartels.

What is the RICO Act Under 18 U.S.C. § 1961?

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act - referred to as RICO - is a law meant to punish those who participate in a pattern of racketeering, defined as unlawful behavior on behalf of a criminal enterprise. Here are examples of typical “rackets”:

The scope of a criminal enterprise under RICO is considerably broader than the definition of criminal street gangs under 18 U.S.C. § 521.

What is the RICO Act Under 18 U.S.C. § 1961?

This allows federal prosecutors to bring RICO charges against groups that aren't necessarily criminal - such as a business, a union, or even a church - as long as they have been involved in a pattern of racketeering.

This act was passed to fight the impact of organized crime on the nation's economy and originally targeted the Mafia and others participating in similar criminal activity.

The RICO Act also allows prosecutors to bring charges against someone, usually a gang leader, for crimes they ordered someone else to commit.

In other words, under the RICO Act, you could be punished if you commit or conspire to commit two or more state or federal crimes to further the activities of a criminal street gang.

You can be prosecuted under RICO if you engage in a pattern of racketeering activity by committing crimes that benefit a street gang, which means committing two or more acts of racketeering within ten years.

What Are the Penalties for Federal Gang Crimes?

If convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 521, the defendant can be sentenced for the underlying crime plus an additional enhancement of up to 10 years because the crime resulted from their affiliation with the gang.

Convictions under the RICO Act come with a maximum penalty of 20 years of imprisonment, but that can be lengthened to a life sentence if the underlying racketeering activity carries a longer sentence (i.e., murder). This is on top of financial penalties or asset forfeiture.

The circumstances where committing a crime might include a sentencing enhancement for the defendant under 18 U.S.C. 521 include:

  • Intent to promote or further felony activity of a street gang,
  • Committed a drug crime to maintain a position within the gang,
  • Involvement in a conspiracy to commit other federal crimes,
  • Committed a crime using threats or force to maintain a position in the gang,
  • Committed other state or federal felony offenses involving substantial risk. The physical force will be used when committed,
  • Prior conviction of a federal or state crime s related to drugs or felony charges within the past five years.

What Are Federal Charges Related to Gang Laws?

Because the consequences for violating 18 U.S.C. § 521 are seen as an enhancementto an underlying crime, it stands to reason that it is prosecuted alongside a host of other statutes. Some of these include:

  • 18 U.S.C. § 1111 - Murder, 
  • 18 U.S.C. § 31 - Embezzlement,
  • 18 U.S.C. § 44 - Weapons trafficking,
  • 18 U.S.C. § 201 - Bribery,
  • 18 U.S.C. § 873 - Blackmail and extortion, 
  • 18 U.S.C. § 471 - Counterfeiting,
  • 18 U.S.C. § 892 - Loan sharking,
  • 18 U.S.C. § 1956 & 1957 - Money laundering,
  • 18 U.S.C. § 1028 - Identity theft,
  • 18 U.S.C. § 1343 - Wire fraud,
  • 18 U.S.C. § 1581 - Human trafficking,
  • 18 U.S.C. § 2251 - Sexual exploitation of children,
  • 18 U.S.C. § 2421A  - Prostitution,
  • 18 U.S.C. § 545 - Smuggling,
  • 18 U.S.C. § 371 - Conspiracy,
  • 21 U.S.C. § 841 - Drug trafficking.

What Are the Best Legal Defenses for These Federal Charges?

To secure a conviction in a gang crime case, federal prosecutors must establish that all of the elements specified in the law are present.

Per 18 U.S.C. § 521, the defendant was associated with a gang, and the crime serviced the gang in some way. Per RICO, the defendant was part of the enterprise, an act of racketeering was committed, and was part of a pattern, at least two offenses in 10 years.

Best Legal Defenses for Federal Gang Crime Charges

Most commonly, defenses will attempt to prove that one or more of these standards have not been met. However, contacting a lawyer is the best way to ensure your defense is suited for the details of your case.

Federal prosecutors take criminal street gang violations seriously and aggressively pursue a conviction. If you or a family member is under criminal investigation for involvement in a criminal street gang, you should contact our federal criminal lawyers immediately.

We can review the case and help you decide whether to fight the case or whether you should cooperate with federal agents to obtain reduced penalties.

In cases where cooperating is not an option, we could negotiate with the federal prosecutor for a favorable plea agreement. We are ready to take the case to trial in a federal courtroom if necessary.

Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, California. We offer legal representation across the United States on federal criminal matters. You can reach out to our law firm via phone or use the contact form.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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