Federal prosecutors in Los Angeles want to wrest ownership of the logo that members of a motorcycle group use on their helmets and jackets, believing that if the logo disappears, the group itself will fade into obscurity.
It is an innovative and laudable way of employing federal forfeiture laws, which allow the government to seize assets — such as money, boats, cars and houses — associated with criminal activity. Not surprisingly, the Mongols biker club is fighting the effort.
The government is taking this tack because traditional law-enforcement strategies, including periodic crackdowns and mass arrests, have failed to decimate what authorities describe as a criminal organization involved in murder, drugs and other illegal activity. According to The New York Times, the Mongols dispute that characterization but acknowledge that some members have gone astray on their own.
No one is saying club members couldn’t continue to call themselves the Mongols. But if the government’s forfeiture action succeeds, the bikers would have to stop using their trademarked logo — the word Mongols emblazoned above a motorcycle-riding caricature of Genghis Kahn — on their bikes and helmets and on patches affixed to their clothes. According to one prosecutor, the government would be able to confiscate a logo right off a biker’s back.
The government believes that identification is what gives the Mongols standing and that taking the logo would be like cutting the head off of a snake. How would the group stay together? Who else would want to join? They’d practically be naked, the laughingstock of the biker community.
Efforts to take control of the Mongols’ logo have gone on for years, with the government at times winning forfeiture decisions in court only to have them reversed or overturned. Prosecutors are renewing the effort as part of a racketeering case now in court in California.
Among other complaints, critics argue that the government’s effort to treat a trademark like personal property — a boat or house, for example — ultimately will fail. But why should it? If trademarks are not a kind of property, and valuable property at that, why do corporations invest so much time and money designing, employing and protecting them?
Forfeiture laws are intended to deprive criminals of assets that sustain or reward illicit activity. If the Mongols are a criminal organization as the government alleges, the logo may be the group’s biggest asset, and it should be taken.
Seizing the logo wouldn’t be the same as eradicating it; as one person told The Times, some club members have the logo tattooed on their bodies, and there’s little to be done about that. The group also could come up with a new logo, potentially forcing the government to start all over again, or members could wear countless iterations they create themselves.
But there’s little doubt that seizing the Mongols’ logo would throw the group into disarray, at least temporarily. If the Mongols are a criminal enterprise, it is better to dismantle the group through a forfeiture proceeding than through many more years of street-level enforcement that puts the bikers, cops and third parties at risk.