SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) — In an unprecedented ruling, a federal judge blocked the U.S. government Thursday from stripping the Mongol Nation Motorcycle Club of its identifying logo.
U.S. District Judge David O. Carter found that allowing federal prosecutors to use criminal forfeiture laws to take control of the Mongols’ trademarks in their “patch” designs – often worn on the bikers’ vests – would violate the club’s rights to free speech and association and constitute an excessive fine, prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.
Allowing the forfeiture “immediately chills” the rights of the club and its members to wear or use the symbols. Therefore, “the forced transfer of the collective membership marks to the United States violates the First Amendment,” the Orange County-based judge wrote in his 51-page ruling.
The judge also ruled that taking away the rights to “a symbol that has been in continuous use by an organization since 1969” would be “unjustified and grossly disproportionate” to the group’s crime, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
Carter refused to throw out a December 2017 jury verdict finding the Mongol Nation guilty of racketeering and conspiracy to commit racketeering in connection with a murder, an attempted murder and two drug sales by club members and associates over several years.
He also upheld the jury’s decision permitting forfeiture of a number of physical items seized by law enforcement, including guns, ammunition and knick-knacks bearing the club logo.
Las Vegas attorney Steven Stubbs, the Mongol Nation’s general counsel, said he and the club are “ecstatic that we could defend the First Amendment for the members and all motorcycle clubs.”
Stubbs described the prosecutors’ forfeiture attempt as “a massive overreach” and an attempt to control symbolic speech.
In a statement, the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles said it is disappointed by Carter’s decision and considering an appeal. “While affirming the jury’s guilty verdicts on racketeering charges, the court’s ruling nullifies the jury’s finding that these marks are a core component of the Mongols’ decades-long pattern of murder, assault and drug trafficking,” the statement said.
Stubbs and Joseph A. Yanny, the Mongols’ lead defense attorney during the case, said they plan to appeal Carter’s decision affirming the racketeering convictions.
Before and during the trial, the judge called the case one of first impression – or a case containing a legal question never before addressed – that might reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
Lawyers on both sides have described the club’s logo as an important symbol that members see as marking their identity as Mongols. Several times before and during the trial, Yanny said taking away the club’s trademarks would be “a death sentence” for the organization.
The patch shows a cartoon Genghis Khan-type figure brandishing a sword and riding a motorcycle under a curved banner bearing the word “Mongols.”
In arguments to the jury, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven R. Welk said that Mongols are “empowered by these symbols that they wear like armor” to maintain a vicious “beehive of pernicious criminal activity” including murders, assaults and narcotics trafficking.
After one effort to win the marks failed, prosecutors filed the current criminal case against the Mongol Nation Motorcycle Club as an entity. A jury convicted the club of racketeering and conspiracy in December 2017. Then last month, it found a “nexus” between the logo trademarks and the gang’s conspiracy to commit racketeering and that therefore the government had the right to take the trademarks through forfeiture.
“That certain individual members of the Mongol Nation displayed the symbols while committing violent crimes … does not justify the government’s attempts to bootstrap a conviction of the motorcycle club into censorship of uncharged members or supporters,” the judge wrote.
The Mongols club traces back to the late 1960s, when Latino Vietnam War veterans who loved riding motorcycles formed it because they could not join the Hells Angels or other groups, Yanny explained to the jury during the trial. Now based in West Covina, the group has chapters in many states as well as a few in other countries, he said.
A team of agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has been targeting the gang since before 2008. That year, the agents and local police rounded up dozens of members and associates in a widespread, coordinated series of raids.
Eventually, 77 of those arrested pleaded guilty to crimes. At the time, then-U.S. Attorney Michael Mukasey boasted that securing the club’s patch trademarks would allow police to “literally take the jacket right off [a Mongol’s] back.”
David Santillan, the national president of the Mongols, who sat with defense counsel throughout the trial, said the group would probably have a party next weekend to celebrate Carter’s decision.
“It’s a weight lifted off all our shoulders,” he said. “It’s been a long 11 years.”
Carter set the sentencing hearing for April 24.