Originally passed to prosecute the mafia, public interest attorneys are now using the RICO Act to prosecute government organizations that undermine the rule of law, violate rights, are opaque institutions, and lead to lost public resources and weakened national integrity. Attorneys acting in the public interest are entitled to fees and expenses if they win.
In many of the instances I uncovered citizens could use the Act to sue their civic institutions. What follows is one story of how it worked.
In 2016 California voters approved Proposition 64 legalizing cannabis. California’s Business and Professions Code bars marijuana businesses from advertising on “state or interstate highways which cross the California border, and the Lady Bird Johnson Highway Beautification Act forbids interstate highway advertising of federally illegal substances.
Cannabis billboards appeared along highways from San Diego to Crescent City, expanding the scope of permissible advertising to most of California’s state and interstate highway system because the California Bureau of Cannabis Control interpreted the law to mean that billboards could advertise marijuana on interstate highways as long as they were not within fifteen miles of the border.
A father, worried about the impact of cannabis advertising on children filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s interpretation. His attorneys used the RICO act to fight his case against the government and the courts agreed, finding in November 2020 that the bureau “exceeded their authority in promulgating the advertisement placement regulation,” calling the regulation “a direct contravention inconsistent with the statute.” The judge gave the Bureau of Cannabis Control 30 days to advise all cannabis advertisers that they must stop advertising on the highways and ordered the Bureau to report back to her within 75 days.
Public interest attorney Saro Rizzo explained, “This is a major triumph … a victory for all Californians over the desires of unelected Sacramento bureaucrats…” and “a vindication of the constitution doctrine of separation of powers in that an agency under the control of the Governor’s Office … cannot subvert the voters’ will by adopting a regulation that … conflicted with a statute.”
Stew Jenkins, his other attorney declared, “The most significant thing about this case is that one person, with a couple of good country lawyers, can compel a state agency through the court to obey the law.”
January 28, 2021, the Bureau of Cannabis Control stipulated it would pay $150,000 to Rizzo and Jenkins and $1,238 in costs.
April 2021 Proponents on both sides of the decision proposed legislation at the state level. 370