Bringing RICO to the ring: can the anti-mafia weapon target dogfighters?

Author:Heger, Matthew C.


Dog Number 118 had no front lips. (1) Her nose was torn and lopsided. (2) Her crooked, broken teeth stood out without protection, constantly exposed to the air. (3) Scar tissue layered her snout. (4) When approached, her handlers warn that she's "a licker." (5)

Known to her caretakers as Fay, Number 118 was one of the more graphic surviving illustrations of dogfighting. (6) Press reports describe other dogs as missing ears, legs, (7) and eyes. (8) One puppy was found with "maggots in its lips, nose, legs and tail." (9) All were rescued in a single series of raids, arresting twenty-six people and seizing more than 500 dogs across eight states. (10) This event in July 2009 was hailed as the largest bust of a dogfighting ring in U.S. history. (11)

"Ring" may be the operative word. Illegal dogfights are not the work of a single law-breaker (12) and instead constitute a form of organized crime. (13) Fights--particularly among avid hobbyists and professional dogfighters--are often highly organized events with spectators, guards, agreed-upon rules, referees, side gambling, prize purses, (14) and sometimes even concession stands. (15) Like any planned event, they require networking, preparation, and coordination between at least two, and typically three or more, parties such as kennels, dog "sponsors," referees, the fight promoter, and spectators. (16) In this way, dogfights often mark the synchronization of criminal efforts from various players, all linked together through their common purpose of the fighting ring. (17)

In the quest for stronger methods to punish dogfighters, some have suggested turning to the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), (18) a law originally inspired to combat La Cosa Nostra ("the Mafia"). (19) RICO creates criminal and civil penalties (20) for using certain ill-gotten gains to run, control, or invest in a business or "enterprise." (21)

RICO's potential application in dogfighting cases became a topic of media speculation in 2007 following the indictment of then-Atlanta Falcons' quarterback Michael Vick. (22) Language in the indictment and facts provided by a co-conspirator emulated language in RICO, (23) touching off speculation of a future indictment against Mr. Vick under RICO. (24) Because the defendants in United States v. Vick ultimately pled to lesser charges, (25) this potential use of RICO remains untested in court. (26)

Since its passage in 1970, RICO has been both revered and reviled because of its strong penalties and broad applicability. (27) It has been called "brilliant ... [but] totalitarian," "like using a cannon to go hunting for squirrels," (28) and "the 'nuclear weapon' of enforcement mechanisms." (29) The law is intentionally flexible, mandating its provisions "be liberally construed" (30) to eradicate organized crime in the United States. (31) As a result, prosecutors have been able to use RICO charges to address a wide range of criminal activity beyond the Mafia, (32) such as corrupt government agencies, health care fraud, (33) securities fraud, (34) and drug trafficking by police. (35)

Compared to traditional prosecution methods, RICO provides longer sentences and strong asset seizure capabilities. RICO also provides a method of consolidating numerous offenses that may not otherwise be pursued by prosecutors, such as gambling and drug offenses, into a single charge.

This Note examines how the existing RICO structure might be applied to dogfighting rings, particularly in relation to recent large busts. Section I examines the history of dogfighting and how it evolved to its modern form. Section II describes modern dogfighting, particularly in relation to three subgroups of dogfighters (professionals, hobbyists, and street fighters), as well as harms associated with the crime. Section Ill discusses traditional and non-RICO prosecutions of dogfighting, as well as some common barriers. Section IV provides an introduction of the criminal RICO statute. This includes a discussion of its legislative purpose, followed by analysis of the most important RICO elements and self-imposed limits on RICO prosecutions observed by the Department of Justice. Finally, section V addresses if and how the typical dogfighting situations may fit RICO requirements.


    Dogfighting has ancient roots. Romans, renowned for their love of blood sports, included dog-versus-dog events in their gladiatorial entertainment schedules. (36) American dogfighting most likely predates the Revolutionary war, when the sport was intimately tied to British roots. (37) British colonists brought their dogs to the colonies to compete in the more popular blood sports of the day, bull- and bearbaiting. (38) Dogfighting rose in popularity in the 1800s as industrialization moved the working class into cities, making baiting sports less practical. (39)

    Dogfighting's popularity was further bolstered on both sides of the Atlantic after Parliament outlawed baiting sports. (40) With baiting illegal, dogfighting reportedly replaced baiting as a venue for both entertainment and gambling. (41) This boost in English popularity was mirrored stateside. (42)

    During the 1800s, upcoming dogfights were advertised in national magazines. (43) Railroads even offered discounted tickets to travel to the events. (44) In (1856), New York became one of the earliest states to outlaw the blood sport. (45) In the next decade, other states followed suit, but enforcement was lax and did little to curb dogfighting's popularity. (46) The United Kennel Club (UKC)--then newly formed, but today the second-largest purebred-dog registry in the world (47)--sanctioned dogfighting, drafting some of the earliest rules and providing referees. (48)

    It was not until the 1930s that dogfighting was finally forced underground when the UKC and other influential organizations withdrew support. (49) The blood sport, however, has never gone away. (50) It resurfaced again in the 1950s and 1960s with the advent of the now-common "Cajun Rules" by a former Louisiana police chief (51) and the publication of magazines touting the blood sport, including Sporting Dog Journal and Pit Dog Report. (52)

    In 1976, dogfighting was banned federally. (53) While illegal nationally, it persisted as legal or only a misdemeanor in many states until 2008 when the last holdouts--Idaho and Wyoming--upgraded dogfighting to felony status. (54)


    1. Dogfighter Classifications

      Today, dogfighting is a felony offense in all fifty states. (55) Despite this, the events thrive as a half-billion-dollar industry. (56)

      There are two basic types of modern dogfights, each with very specific characteristics: street fights or "traditional" planned events. (57) Law enforcement further classifies the handlers of fighting dogs into three general profiles. (58) Each profile is based on the handler's level of sophistication, (59) the amount at stake in each fight, the location of fights, and similar factors. (60) The levels, from highest sophistication to lowest, are professionals, hobbyists, and street fighters. (61)

      Street fights represent the largest growth of fighters, (62) fueled in part by the "discovery" of dogfighting by urban gangs. (63) Street fights are largely unstructured, (64) sometimes spontaneous, (65) and while they often include betting, the dogs serve more as status symbols and fight results are proxies for the handler's own masculinity or toughness, or even proxies for a fight between rival gangs. (66) Street fighters tend to breed dogs haphazardly, seeking size but with little emphasis on preserving bloodlines. (67) Their fights are typically lower-stakes battles that ignore traditional customs and pit rules, sometimes inventing sadistic twists to the blood sport. (68) An estimated 100,000 people participate in street fights in the United States. (69)

      At the other end of the spectrum are traditional fights. (70) These range from high-stakes national and international fights (71) to local-level events. (72) They are supported by a clandestine subculture of dogfighters and spectators. (73) Events often require a password for entry, and guards may be hired to keep an eye out for police or other disruptions. (74)

      Unlike the street fight, the traditional fight relies on codes of conduct and "pit rules," (75) such as the popular Cajun Rules. (76) There is a heavy emphasis on breeding, with bloodlines and championships closely monitored, (77) reminiscent of an underground version of purebred-dog fancier organizations such as the UKC or AKC. (78) This infatuation with pedigree makes champion and grand-champion dogs (79) a valuable commodity both for winning fights, but also for breeding purposes. (80) Puppies from successful fighters may sell for anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $5,000. (81) One professional fighter told undercover officers he had sold at least seventy puppies in a single year at prices ranging from $1,000 to $1,500 apiece. (82)

      Traditional fights attract both hobbyists and professional handlers, and the main distinctions between these two types of handlers are dedication, reputation, and success within the covert community of dogfighters. (83) Professionals, sometimes called "dogmen," (84) dominate the fights with the highest stakes. (85) Their dogs are primarily viewed as monetary investments, and they keep meticulous records of breeding, diet, and training of individual dogs. (86) An estimated (40,000) professional dogfighters are active in the United States, with that number projected "to rise as long as dog fighting remains lucrative." (87) Hobbyists (also known as "enthusiasts" or "fanciers") (88) tend to stay closer to home, own fewer dogs, and have a greater interest in the gambling and entertainment aspects of the blood sport. (89) Both hobbyists and professionals differ strongly from street fighters in philosophy. (90)

      While outsiders are viewed skeptically, professional and hobby...

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