After a decade spent fighting the Mongols motorcycle club and its violent members in court, federal prosecutors appeared poised last month to deliver a decisive blow when a jury voted to strip the notorious club of trademarks it holds on its coveted logo.
But a federal judge in Santa Ana Thursday let the Mongols off the ropes, refusing to enforce the jury’s decision after ruling that taking control of the insignia from club would be unconstitutional.
Denying Mongol members the ability to display the logo on their leather riding jackets and elsewhere would overstep the right to free expression embedded in the 1st Amendment, as well as the 8th Amendment’s ban on excessive penalties, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter found.
“There is a realistic danger that the transfer of the rights associated with the symbol to the government will have a chilling effect,” Carter wrote.
In a sternly worded, 51-page ruling, Carter unambiguously knocked down each of the arguments prosecutors had made in favor of wresting away control of the trademarks the club’s leaders used to maintain tight control over its image and membership.
In doing so, the judge dealt a significant setback to the novel legal strategy prosecutors had concocted in the case, which aimed to apply federal forfeiture laws, which are typically used to take cash, houses and other tangible property, to the abstract rights associated with a trademark.
Carter said the government was well within its rights to take weapons, ammunition and other contraband seized in raids against the Mongols.
However, likening the Mongols to a ship, the judge wrote, “The Government is not merely seeking forfeiture of the ship’s sails. In this prosecution the United States is attempting … to change the meaning of the ship’s flag.”
Prosecutors’ claim that rights to the insignia should be stripped because it was a vital part of the club’s criminal activity — a powerful image used to “generate fear among the general public” — fell far short of clearing the high barrier the 1st Amendment requires the government to clear if it wants to restrict speech, Carter wrote.
Since the group was formed in late 1960s, the image of a Genghis Khan figure in sunglasses riding a motorcycle beneath the group’s name has been the foundation of the Mongols’ identity, which over the years has included involvement in drug dealing and violence by many members.
Only those who have been admitted to the inner ranks of the insular group are allowed to stitch the large patches of the insignia onto their riding apparel. And in the closed-off world of motorcycle clubs, built largely around rivalries and alliances with other groups, the logo serves as an unmistakable signal to friends and enemies.
“We are ecstatic that the Mongols motorcycle club has been able to win this 1st Amendment battle for itself and all motorcycle clubs,” said Stephen Stubbs, an attorney for the Mongols. “The government has clearly overreached into a realm that the Constitution does not allow. They tried to ban symbolic speech.”
In a statement, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office said, “We are disappointed in the ruling,” adding that prosecutors believe the country’s laws obligated Carter to order the trademarks to be forfeited.
The government is “definitely considering an appeal,” he said.
In December, after a lengthy trial, a jury convicted the Mongols organization of racketeering and conspiracy charges, finding that the group shared responsibility for murder, attempted murder and drug crimes committed by individual members.
The verdict cleared the way for prosecutors to go after the trademarks as part of the sentence against the club.
Following more testimony and legal wrangling over the forfeiture issue, the jury voted unanimously that the Mongols should lose control of the trademarks, finding that there was a direct link between the image and one of the criminal charges the club faced — conspiracy to commit racketeering.
Calling the verdict the “first of its kind in the nation,” U.S. Atty. Nicola Hanna said seizing the Mongols’ trademarks would serve to “attack the sources of a criminal enterprise’s economic power and influence.”
But rather than order the trademarks forfeited, Carter set a hearing to examine, among other things, the 1st Amendment issues raised by the verdict.
When both sides arrived in court Thursday to make their cases for signing off on the jury’s decision, Carter — who during the trial made no secret of his concerns that the novel legal strategy crossed constitutional lines — had his order already written.
The judge said 1st Amendment issues were undeniably at play because the type of trademarks the Mongols own, called collective membership marks, don’t serve any commercial purpose but only help members to identify themselves as part of a group.
And because the jury had found the logo was tied directly to the conspiracy charge but not the murders and other violent crimes with which the club was accused of participating, Carter concluded forfeiting the trademarks would violate the Constitution’s 8th Amendment, which forbids the government from imposing excessive punishments.
Denying members control over the logo would be an “unjustified and grossly disproportionate” punishment, he wrote.
In laying out the rationale for his decision, Carter revisited the long history of the government’s pursuit of the Mongols.
Formed in the 1970s in Montebello by a group of mostly Latino men who reportedly had been rejected for membership by the Hells Angels motorcycle gang, the club has expanded over the decades to include several hundred members in chapters across Southern California and elsewhere.
In 2008, nearly 80 Mongols members were charged in a sweeping racketeering case that included an array of alleged murders, assaults and drug deals.
Prosecutors devised the strategy of stripping the Mongols of their trademarks in that earlier case. At a news conference announcing the charges, then-U.S. Atty. Thomas P. O’Brien laid out the strategy, saying that taking control of the trademarked insignia would give the government the authority to force Mongols members to remove the image from their riding jackets.
All but two of the defendants in the case pleaded guilty, and a judge agreed the trademarks should be forfeited but ultimately reversed himself after deciding none of the people charged in the case actually owned the trademarks.
That led prosecutors to try again with a second racketeering case that was largely the same as the first but which named only one defendant: Mongol Nation, the entity that prosecutors say is made up of the club’s leaders and owns the trademarks.
Carter has not yet imposed a sentence on the Mongols in the current racketeering case. The punishment could include monetary fines.
“Judge Carter’s decision recognizes that there are many punishments and penalties that can be imposed, but denying speech rights raises serious 1st Amendment concerns,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at UC Berkeley.
Joseph Yanny, a criminal -defense attorney who argued the case for the Mongols, expressed disappointment that the judge had rejected his requests that the verdict be tossed out altogether.
But he acknowledged that allowing the club to maintain control over its logo was a major win. Losing the trademarks, he had said during the trial, would have amounted to a “death sentence” for the Mongols.
The government’s case, he said, was an attempt to impose “collective guilt” on an organization for the crimes committed by some of its members.
“That’s never been the law in this country,” he said.
Follow @joelrubin on Twitter