Michigan RICO Prosecution Against Flint's Howard Boys Gang Successful

Dubbed the feds' "big hammer" by some, the federal RICO Act has helped federal prosecutors dismantle local gang operations, like the Howard Boys Gang in Flint, Michigan, that are difficult to effect otherwise with a case-by-case approach.  The RICO Act works in part by using potentially long prison sentences on lower-level gang members to produce sentencing agreements that require testimony against higher-level gang members.

From MLive:

"FLINT, MI -- A violent south-side gang is believed to be the first from Flint targeted by a federal law that has taken down the mafia.

In the more than 40 years the RICO act has been used against everything from the Gambino Family to the Hells Angels, it wasn't until now that federal prosecutors in Flint used the anti-racketeering statute to go after a dozen members of the Howard Boys.

The gang -- which claimed its turf as [']Murda Ville['] -- used violence and intimidation to control the drug and gun trade on Flint's south side, prosecutors say.

Eleven of those charged in the Howard Boys case eventually pleaded to or were found guilty of federal charges of participating in a racketeering conspiracy under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, including five men convicted in the case last week.

[']Based on our recollections, this is likely the only RICO case that has been prosecuted in the U.S. District Court in Flint,['] said Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Wininger.

Mike Dunn, an associate professor with Thomas M. Cooley Law School, said RICO, which was passed in 1970 as part of the Organized Crime Control Act, was first enacted to take down those involved with the mafia.

[']It was designed for La Cosa Nostra and organized crime,['] Dunn said of the law.

Members of the Gambino, Lucchese and Genovese crime families have all been targets of prosecutions under the act.

However, Dunn said the use of the act has evolved over the years beyond targeting mobsters.

Street gangs, politicians and outlaw bikers have all been targeted by RICO prosecutions.

[']They're starting to look at RICO cases more and more,['] Dunn said of federal prosecutors. [']It's like the big hammer of the U.S. Attorney's office.[']

Dunn said the RICO act lets prosecutors cast a wide net when taking on criminal organizations, allowing them to focus on the minor players and major shot callers in the same case.

The law targets individuals who have engaged in a pattern of criminal activity, such as murder, robbery and extortion, in support of an enterprise. However, prosecutors don't need to prove a person committed a crime themselves to get a conviction under the RICO act. The act allows prosecutors to obtain a conviction if they can prove that an individual ordered others to commit a crime.

[']RICO allows the government to indict and try several members of a criminal enterprise at once as opposed to prosecuting them separately,['] said assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Vance, who tried the Howard Boys case along with Wininger. [']RICO conspiracy, the charge utilized here, permits the prosecution of a gang member even if he did not directly commit the crime but only agreed or conspired with the perpetrators.[']

Convictions can land defendants sentences of up to life in prison, depending on the underlying racketeering activity.

Dunn, a former federal defense attorney of 25 years who worked on three RICO cases, said this inclusive approach combined with stiff sentences puts pressure on defense attorneys to reach plea agreements for clients who would be considered minor actors in the criminal enterprise and whose testimony could help secure convictions against the organization's biggest members.

[']If you can plea to something outside of RICO, plea,['] Dunn said.

Six of the dozen men associated with the Howard Boys who were indicted on federal RICO charges reached plea agreements with prosecutors prior to trial. Numerous other gang associates also pleaded guilty to state court charges in exchange for their cooperation.

[']These convictions -- both state and federal -- should send an important message to this community that violence will not be tolerated,['] U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said in a statement. [']It will not be tolerated by the United States Attorney's Office, the Genesee County Prosecutor's Office and it will not be tolerated by the people of Flint. Despite immense pressure not to testify, many from this community assisted these cases by providing information and testifying. The jury's verdict shows that their voices were heard.[']

Outside of the federal trial that yielded guilty verdicts against five suspected Howard Boys gang members, the plea agreements also helped secure a first-degree murder conviction in Genesee Circuit Court for a man associated with the gang.

Attorney Tricia Raymond said her client, Terrell Roche, was convicted after Howard Boys members agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in the case.

Roche was found guilty July 18 of first-degree premeditated murder, second-degree arson and felony firearms for the 2005 killing of his stepfather, 49-year-old Ralph Matthews.

Raymond said after the conviction that there was little physical evidence to tie her client to the killings and that her client was convicted largely on the testimony from suspected gang members -- including some who were facing murder charges before reaching plea agreements.

She added that six of the 22 witnesses called in the case testified as part of cooperation agreements with prosecutors.

[']I am disappointed in the jury's verdict,['] Raymond said. [']I believe there was reasonable doubt.[']

But, prosecutors say this cooperative effort between local, state and federal prosecutors and law enforcement agencies is needed to clean up some of the nation's most-violent cities.

[']The more bad actors we can remove from the streets, we have a better chance of having safer streets,['] Leyton said, adding that the cooperation between law enforcement agencies operating in the Flint area has been [']unprecedented.[']

Federal authorities agree that prosecutions like the Howard Boys case can have a large impact in fighting crime.

[']In the long term, these convictions should send a strong message that violence of this kind will not be tolerated,['] Wininger said, adding that residents around the Howard Boys' territory have noted an improvement since the arrests. [']We hope that the impact will be far ranging and that through continued cooperation and coordination between the different law enforcement agencies, we will deter those who might otherwise engage in this type of violence.[']

Despite never being used previously in Flint, prosecutors say that the RICO act is being used more and more to target criminal organizations.

[']RICO charges have been increasingly utilized to battle violent gangs throughout the nation,['] said Wininger. [']This includes both national gangs like MS-13, the Bloods and Crips, as well as local neighborhood-based gangs like the Howard Boys.[']

Vance said that use of the RICO act often allows for longer sentences than trying each suspect individually and allows federal prosecutors to highlight previous state and local convictions to satisfy the need of proving a pattern of criminal activity.

Despite never being used in Flint, the U.S. Attorney's office of Michigan's Eastern District has previously used the RICO act to secure convictions against high-profile defendants.

Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was sentenced to 28 years in federal prison after he was found guilty of 24 federal crimes related to public corruption, including violations of the RICO act.

Suspected longtime Detroit mob boss Giacomo [']Black Jack['] Tocco died in July with only one felony on his record -- a 1998 racketeering conspiracy conviction that forced the sale of Hazel Park Raceway. The conspiracy included loan-sharking, illegal gambling and attempts to gain hidden control of Nevada casinos, the government said.

Multiple members of the Detroit motorcycle club, the Highwaymen, were also convicted of a racketeering conspiracy that involved violence, drugs and robbery on the city's southwest side.

Members of the Detroit-based Bounty Hunter Bloods gang are currently under indictment after gang members allegedly participated in stabbings, carjackings and house fire-bombings between 2007 and 2014.

[']I hope they're getting the message,['] Leyton said of those groups committing crimes in the Flint area. [']If you want to break the law, we're coming at you with everything we have.[']"