Atlanta-based rappers Young Thug and Gunna were recently arrested along with 26 other defendants in a 56-count indictment. According to the indictment, each defendant was charged with conspiracy to violate Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, also known as RICO. Convictions can lead to up to 20 years in prison.
Young Thug and Gunna’s case sheds light on how RICO can be applied to organizations that are allegedly tied to criminal acts.
Capital B Atlanta spoke with Randy Williams, president and managing partner of Williams Law Group of Georgia, which practices criminal defense, real estate law, and business and commercial law. We also spoke with defense attorney Bruce Rivers, who has gained prominence for commentary on hip-hop-related court cases, to provide insight on the RICO Act, the use of rap lyrics in court, and the overall impact of the indictment.
Read More: Prosecutors are using the lyrics in Young Thug’s songs, such as in “Take It To Trial,” in the Atlanta rapper’s racketeering case.
How long has RICO been around and how did it evolve?
The RICO Act was initially signed into federal law by President Richard Nixon in 1970. In Georgia, one of the first RICO cases occurred in 1983 and involved a criminal organization from Walton County with ties to the Dixie Mafia. The Atlanta Public Schools teaching scandal was another high-profile RICO case in Georgia.
“What [RICO] is intended to do is wrap up all different types of criminal activity,” said Williams. “But now you have states that are trying to combat crimes that have become a little bit more sophisticated.”
What does it mean to face a RICO indictment in Georgia?
Georgia’s RICO law dates back to 1980 when it was passed by the General Assembly. RICO was implemented to provide prosecutors with more range to indict criminal organizations. Georgia’s RICO statute goes a bit deeper than the federal law by defining racketeering more broadly and allowing multiple defendants to face indictments under one case. It’s also easier for prosecutors to prove racketeering in Georgia because the law does not always require the existence of an enterprise.
“It makes it illegal for any person to participate in a pattern of interrelated criminal activities, which are either motivated or result from them gaining money or some kind of … physical trade against another person,” Williams said. “So there’s a lot that can go into a RICO charge. That’s a district attorney’s decision as to how they bring that charge. In general, you’re normally going to see some sort of coordinated effort by several individuals that are in coordination with criminal activity.”
In Young Thug’s case, the rapper is facing additional charges that could be more detrimental than the RICO charges.
“The RICO [charge] is the least of his worries, to be honest with you,” Rivers said. “It’s the conspiracy to commit murder and the other more substantive state crimes that are more serious.”
Can businesses be indicted under the RICO Act?
In 2016, Young Thug announced the launch of YSL [Young Stoner Life] Records. Prosecutors believe that YSL Records is only a front for the rapper’s alleged criminal enterprise.
“Just because they’re also a record label doesn’t mean they can’t be involved in other criminal activity,” Rivers said. “So when you have a group of people that are acting in concert to commit criminal activity, that’s what RICO is all about. So whether YSL is a record label or not, it’s still an organization. Let’s say a corporation has an ongoing criminal enterprise within their company, but they do some legitimate business that is not illegal. It doesn’t shield them from RICO just because they’re a corporation.”
However, most companies are not charged under RICO, according to Williams.
“You’re looking at individuals who may belong to an organization and individuals are being charged because of their affiliation with that corrupt organization,” William said. “It could be a company. But I have never seen any kind of large corporation being charged under the RICO Act. Again, these are activities that are engaged in by individuals. If they are engaging in these activities under the guise of a company, but it’s more of a criminal enterprise, I could see them being charged in that way. These are decisions that are made by district attorneys, but you just don’t generally see large companies being charged under the RICO Act.”
What are the ramifications for Gunna after he was denied bond?
On May 23, a Fulton County judge denied bond for Gunna, stating that he is “a danger to witnesses and other folks tied to this.” Gunna’s trial was set for Jan. 23, 2023.
“There are some factors that are supposed to be considered when granting a bond in Georgia,” Williams said. “Those bond factors are what the court is supposed to be looking at. Does the person pose a significant risk of fleeing from the jurisdiction? Does this person pose any danger to another individual or the community? Would they potentially engage in additional felonies before their trial date? Would they intimidate witnesses? Those are factors that the court would consider.”
Although Gunna will remain behind bars, he’s likely to get another opportunity to be granted bond before the trial date. “It’s not uncommon for first bond appearances to be denied,” Williams said. “But if the trial is not until January 2023, they’ll likely have another opportunity to make a motion for another bond hearing before January.”
Beyond rap, have prosecutors used different forms of art to gain convictions?
Prosecutors will likely use social media posts and rap lyrics from Young Thug and Gunna. However, rap appears to be the only art form that is consistently used as evidence during criminal court cases.
“As a criminal defense attorney, I see a lot of things,” Williams said. “I believe that we know there’s a need for criminal justice reform because there are targets of our criminal justice system that are probably targeted because of how society defines certain behaviors. When it comes to rap, me being a supporter of hip-hop and rap music, there is no escaping the reality. But some elements within hip-hop do engage in high levels of criminal activity. So I would caution to say that it’s rap itself that is being criminalized as opposed to there being some who are in the rap game who are criminals. I don’t think that anyone would suggest that there should be a tolerance for violence. We should all probably stand in uniformity against those kinds of activities. But I also don’t think that defines rap.”
If Young Thug and Gunna are convicted, will this be a watershed moment in hip-hop?
Young Thug and Gunna’s indictments could have a major impact on hip-hop. If there are convictions, more rap crews in Georgia and other states could be at the center of criminal investigations and face indictments.
“In order to be found guilty in our criminal justice system, the person must be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” Williams said. “I would like to think that artists, especially well-established artists, have the resources to have good counsel, and would be able to challenge the state. But I don’t believe it’s an attack on artists, nor an attack on rap. And if that is what some are doing, we should all be joining in lockstep to prevent any prosecutors from trying to criminalize an art form, because that’s not what the criminal justice system should be about.”
Also, the production and distribution of volatile lyrics could be impacted by the case. The oversaturation of violence in rap could face more backlash in the upcoming years as the line between art and irresponsibility thins.
“We should also be standing against anyone who’s perpetuating violence because that violence is happening in our communities,” Williams said. “We can support rap without supporting violence against our people. And so I hope that any prosecutor who was looking to bring an action against anyone is doing so based on actual facts where there’s criminal activity being engaged in, as opposed to targeting people because of how they look, how they dress, or how they speak.”