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How “Engaging in Organized Criminal Activity” Can Add Years to a Possible Sentence

Texas prosecutors will often try and “enhance” a criminal case by charging the defendant with “engaging in organized criminal activity” or EOCA. This is the state equivalent of the federal RICO statute. It essentially enables the government to charge a defendant with participating in a criminal organization in addition to the underlying criminal act. An EOCA conviction thus means additional penalties for the defendant.

So what exactly is EOCA? Texas law defines it as acting “with the intent to establish, maintain, or participate in a combination or in the profits of a combination or as a member of a criminal street gang, the person commits or conspires to commit” a specified “predicate offense.” A “gang” in this context means a group of at least three people.

Not all crimes are predicate offenses. And not all crimes committed by someone who belongs to a “criminal street gang” is guilty of EOCA. The state must prove both that there was a predicate offense and the defendant committed that offense in connection with their membership in the gang.

Appeals Court Throws Out EOCA Conviction Due to Lack of Evidence Linking Robbery, Gang Membership

Overly aggressive EOCA charges can and have been thrown out on appeal. Just recently, the Texas Second District Court of Appeals ordered an acquittal in a robbery case, Riles v. State, where prosecutors tacked on an EOCA charge. The defendant in this case allegedly walked into a convenience store and proceeded to rob the cashier at gunpoint.

After the defendant’s arrest, a police department gang expert purportedly identified some of the defendant’s tattoos as consistent with known “gang imagery.” A police officer also testified at trial that the defendant’s name had been in a database of suspected gang members for several years.

A jury convicted the defendant of both the underlying aggravated robbery and the EOCA charge. The court sentenced the defendant to life in prison. On appeal, the defendant argued the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to support his EOCA conviction.

The Second District agreed. The EOCA statute required the prosecutors to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that there was “some nexus or relationship between the commission of the underlying offense and the defendant’s gang membership.” While the defendant’s tattoos may have proven he belonged to a gang, the appellate court said that did not prove that he committed the armed robbery as a member of the gang or to further its goals. A police officer speculated at trial that the robbery might have been an attempt to “gain and maintain respect” with other gang members. but that was speculative at best and did not establish the “nexus” required by the EOCA law.

Contact Galveston Criminal Defense Lawyer Tad Nelson Today

Prosecutors frequently add charges like EOCA to an indictment in an effort to pressure a defendant into accepting an unfavorable plea bargain. By working with an experienced Houston criminal defense attorney, you can help protect yourself against such tactics and assert your rights in court. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today if you need to speak with a lawyer right away.