By Sean Emery
A federal judge presiding over the high-profile Mongols motorcycle club trial has agreed to put out a wide-ranging call for expert legal input on the implications of the government’s unprecedented efforts to gain control of the well-known insignia worn by club members.
Less than a week after a Santa Ana jury decided the notorious outlaw club must forfeit the trademark to its logo, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter on Wednesday agreed to solicit briefs from a variety of experts, including trademark attorneys, law school professors, civil rights organizations and think tanks.
The judge’s decision highlights the new legal ground being broken in the first-of-its-kind Mongols racketeering and forfeiture case, which has drawn national attention and is virtually guaranteed to go before the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court.
Carter said that in order to get the word out he plans to reach out directly to acquaintances in academia, including Erwin Chemerinsky, the founding dean of the UCI Law School who currently heads the UC Berkeley School of Law.
The judge also noted that a variety of organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Heritage Foundation and the Hoover Institution, would likely want to lend their expertise.
“I don’t expect an avalanche, but I do expect there will be folks interested,” Carter said.
Federal prosecutors are attempting to take control of a symbol that lies at the heart of one of the country’s largest motorcycle clubs, one all parties agree is central to the organization’s identity.
Jurors in December found that the Mongols motorcycle club engaged in drug trafficking, vicious assaults and murder. Much of the violence, which prosecutors say the club’s leaders encouraged, was tied to a decades-old rivalry between the Mongols and the Hells Angels motorcycle club, and included attacks, some fatal, in bars or restaurants in Hollywood, Pasadena, Merced, La Mirada, Wilmington and Riverside.
Attorneys for the Mongols have indicated that, if successful, the government’s efforts to strip them of control of the patches that adorn their leather “cuts” would be a “death sentence” for the West Covina-based club.
The patches include the club’s name and an illustration of a Genghis Khan-type character with a ponytail riding a motorcycle and wearing sunglasses.
During the trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Welk said taking the Mongols’ trademark is the “only way to stop the endless cycle of crime that organizations like this perpetuate.” Mongols attorney Joseph Yanny countered that the trademark had nothing to do with the crimes, which he said were committed by “bad apples” who are no longer involved with the club.
Judge Carter has yet to rule on key legal issues regarding the government’s attempts to take the Mongols trademarks, including whether stripping the club of the rights to its patches or blocking riders from using them would constitute a violation of its members’ First Amendment rights.
Unlike a typical racketeering case, in which specific members of an organization are charged with crimes, the sole defendant in the current legal battle is the Mongols organization itself. As a result, attorneys for the Mongols also requested the judge to ask legal experts to weigh in on whether an organization is capable of forming the intent to commit crimes such as murder or attempted murder.
The judge and the attorneys in the case on Tuesday were still finalizing the questions for experts, which will take the form of “friend-of-the-court” briefs, where those outside the case weigh in.
Carter on Feb. 28 is scheduled to hear arguments over whether the verdicts in the Mongols case should be tossed out over legal technicalities or on constitutional grounds.