Between 2007 and 2011, three Greensboro men committed several crimes. One robbed an insurance company and two dry cleaners at gunpoint, stealing at least $4,400. Another shot at a house, striking a resident in the butt. A third ordered a shooting that left an innocent person wounded.

Such crimes typically result in individual charges. But because the men were associated with the Latin Kings, federal prosecutors charged them under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or “RICO.” Enacted by Congress in 1970, the statute was designed to dismantle the Mafia and other criminal enterprises who affect interstate commerce.

Now, however, three local lawyers representing the Greensboro men are fighting to reverse the convictions, arguing that their impact on interstate commerce was insubstantial. Last Thursday, a panel of judges with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, heard oral arguments in U.S. v. Cornell, Wilson and Kilfoil. The lawyers argued that the Greensboro Latin Kings were nothing more than cash-strapped street criminals, far removed from moneymaking kingpins like John Gotti. The court’s decision could have significant national impact on the way street gangs are charged with crimes.

“This wasn’t the mob,” said Durham attorney Brian Aus, who represents Russell “King Peaceful” Kilfoil. “These guys spent more time talking about getting money to have something to eat. You, too, could be an Inca for a day if you have the right color shirt and beads.”

Two other U.S. circuit courts are divided over whether RICO applies to street gangs whose criminal activity only minimally affects interstate commerce. For this reason, the Greensboro case could be considered by the U.S. Supreme Court, Aus said.

RICO is one of the most far-reaching pieces of legislation used in criminal law, offering prosecutors broad leeway to make tough-on-crime statements. The maximum federal sentence for each racketeering charge is 20 years. To secure a conviction, prosecutors must link gangsters to at least two crimes from a list of 35, including bribery, counterfeiting, loansharking, extortion, drug dealing, fraud and gambling.

Historically, RICO has been used against crime bosses who ordered murders, but avoided getting blood on their hands. It’s also used to enhance sentences. Because the investigations are expensive and labor-intensive, RICO prosecutions are limited. All federal charges must be approved by Justice Department headquarters in Washington.

The Greensboro case stems from 2012, when 14 Latin Kings were indicted in federal court for racketeering conspiracy. Seven Kings pleaded guilty, and seven went to trial, which lasted nearly a month and involved more than 130 witnesses. Three gang members were convicted.

The trial gained significant media coverage, mostly because one of the defendantsJorge “King Jay” Cornell, who oversaw all Latin Kings in North Carolinahad a large contingent of supporters. In 2008 he’d become an activist, preaching nonviolence. He protested against police harassment and sought to find jobs for ex-offenders. He ran, unsuccessfully, for Greensboro City Council twice. Community leaders called him a role model.

But prosecutors say Cornell lived a double life. His crew was brutal. One of the Greensboro Kings stabbed an eighth grader. Another shot a woman as she protected her children during a drive-by. Another hit the manager of one of the dry cleaners and stole her purse. (Our Dec. 11, 2013, cover story, “My Life as a Latin King,” was written by Steaphan “King Lio” Asencio-Vazquez, who participated in multiple armed robberies and pleaded guilty prior to the trial.)

Cornell was sentenced to 27 years in prison for racketeering conspiracy and violent crime in aid of racketeering activity. His half-brother, Kilfoil, and Ernesto Wilson each were convicted of racketeering conspiracy and sentenced to 15 and 17 years, respectively.

On appeal, prosecutors cited several instances in which the defendants’ actions affected interstate commerce, which is a requirement under RICO: the dry cleaners they robbed used out-of-state supplies; their guns were manufactured outside of North Carolina; their cell phones relied on national networks; they recruited members through MySpace, which lives on the Internet. When Cornell traveled to New York and Detroit to meet with other King leaders, he crossed state lines. Two Kings admitted to writing bad checks, defrauding Wachovia of $2,575, and giving Cornell a cut.

“We have people and things moving in interstate commerce,” Sonja Ralston, an attorney with the Department of Justice, argued to the judges last week. “We have all of these guns that were used in all of these different crimes that … have traveled in interstate commerce.”

Judge Andre Davis interrupted, asking, “Could Congress federalize every murder committed anywhere if a firearm that had traveled in interstate commerce was the weapon of choice?”

Yes, Ralston replied.

The Kings’ attorneys dispute that logic.

“You could say that they robbed a drycleaner that purchased cleaning fluids from out-of-state, but we would say that’s overreaching,” said Aus. “I don’t think this is what Congress envisioned when it passed RICO.”

Legal experts say the Greensboro Kings face long odds. “Historically, interstate commerce is a very, very low threshold,” said Jeffrey Grell, a Minneapolis lawyer and RICO expert. “The argument that a crime doesn’t impact interstate commerce is pretty weak. A U.S. attorney isn’t going to go through the hassle of RICO claim unless there’s a reason to do so. You’re not going to court devoting manpower and hours like this unless you think it’s serious.”