Academic journal article Iowa Law Review

Iowa's State RICO Statute: Wreaking Havoc on Iowa's Criminal Justice System

Academic journal article Iowa Law Review

Iowa's State RICO Statute: Wreaking Havoc on Iowa's Criminal Justice System

Article excerpt


Critics of the United States' criminal justice system increasingly call for reform, with scholars and laymen alike highlighting the lengthy sentences for non-violent crimes,1 racial disparities in conviction and sentencing,2 police violence,3 and the ineffectiveness ofjury trials.4 As Judge Kozinski of the Ninth Circuit wrote in his article, Criminal Law 2.0, "there are enough doubts on a broad range of subjects touching intimately on the integrity of the system that we should be concerned."5 Among the frequent concerns affecting the integrity of the criminal justice system is the power of prosecutors in America. Because most criminal cases are resolved through plea bargains, prosecutors have immense power.6 Prosecutors often have more power to decide a defendant's fate than jurors, as they have the ability to stack charges to increase the risks a defendant faces by going to trial.7

Of course, prosecutors are supposed to seek fairness and justice. As the Supreme Court noted in Berger v. United States:

[A prosecutor] is in a peculiar and very definite sense the servant of the law, the twofold aim of which is that guilt shall not escape or innocence suffer. He may prosecute with earnestness and vigor- indeed, he should do so. But, while he may strike hard blows, he is not at liberty to strike foul ones. It is as much his duty to refrain from improper methods calculated to produce a wrongful conviction as it is to use every legitimate means to bring about a just one.8

In an effort to ensure that prosecutors act with fairness and justice, the American Bar Association imposes standards on prosecutors to prevent them from overcharging defendants.9 However, these standards do not prevent prosecutors from pursuing the most severe charges supported by the evidence, even if a jury conviction is unlikely.10 Likewise, prosecutors often make charging decisions in private with little or no oversight to hold them accountable for charging more than they believe they can prove beyond a reasonable doubt.11 This charging strategy places the defendants in a "Catch-22": they can either risk being convicted of all or some of the charges, or they can accept plea deals that offer reduced charges in exchange for guilty pleas to one or some of the nominal offenses they committed in the hopes of receiving mercy in sentencing.12 This bargain for mercy benefits prosecutors far more than it benefits defendants, as prosecutors are able to obtain guilty pleas in cases where convictions are unlikely for all charges while defendants accepting plea deals are frequently sentenced on the basis of the offenses committed rather than the charges to which they plead.13

The Iowa Ongoing Criminal Conduct Act ("IOCCA"), Iowa Code section 706A, currently provides prosecutors with an excellent tool to overcharge defendants who are facing charges on two or more offenses committed in succession. The IOCCA is essentially Iowa's version of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act ("RICO") statute.14 However, the IOCCA extends much further than federal RICO or the Model Ongoing Criminal Conduct Act ("Model Act") that the Iowa statute was originally modeled after. Specifically, the IOCCA's definition of "specified unlawful activity" removes the Model Act's limitations on the applicable criminal conduct it punishes. The Model Act's drafters only intended for it to apply to racketeering or acts characteristic of organized crime.15 The exclusion of the Model Act's limitations on "specified unlawful activity" has prompted a number of challenges before the Iowa Court of Appeals and Iowa Supreme Court to appeal convictions of Iowa Code section 7o6A.2(4), the statutory provision criminalizing ongoing criminal conduct through acts of "specified unlawful activity."

Despite the many challenges to the IOCCA, the Iowa Supreme Court has begrudgingly upheld the constitutionality of the statute, as is appropriate under a plain language interpretation of the IOCCA. …

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