While this blog tends to focus on the latest crime news and information for criminal defendants and their lawyers, a recent case in California deals with a fascinating intersection between criminality and intellectual property that is worth a discussion.
A motorcycle club based in Los Angeles was recently convicted of racketeering and criminal conspiracy – the Mongol Nation. It was formed in the 1970s, allegedly when a group of Latino men had been rejected by the Hell’s Angels. The club has had decades of bouts with the Angels, and the vast majority of its members have been convicted on drug charges and assaults.
Largely considered by federal prosecutors to be a criminal gang, the Mongol Nation is recognized by the logo on its jackets. A figure similar to Genghis Khan with sunglasses riding a motorcycle sits below the club name.
Only members are allowed to wear the logo. The club uses it on its jackets, patches, and shirts, and the club considers the logo central to its identity. The government agrees that it’s a powerful logo and has since tried to strip the club of its trademark as punishment for its role in operating as a criminal organization.
After the guilty verdict handed down by the jury, the judge called the jury back to determine whether the club’s logo is related enough to the crimes at hand to warrant the forfeiture of the group’s trademarks back to the government.
The government has been trying to remove the trademark from the group for at least a decade. The idea is that, without the trademarks, the group will lose money and be starved based on the amount members pay for the merchandise, as well as losing the ability to control who can wear the Mongol logo.
The attorney representing the Mongols attempted to persuade the jury that the government was overreaching, calling it the ‘death penalty’ for the motorcycle club. He further claimed that the government did not carry its burden of proof to demonstrate that the image had any connection to the crimes of the club, and therefore, requiring forfeiture of the trademark would unfairly punish members of the club who had no criminal connection.
He further claimed that the Mongols had expelled members of the club engaged in wrong-doing, and even suggested that the government unfairly targeted the club because the majority of its members were Latin-American.
The jury determined that the government is entitled to require forfeiture of the trademark; however, the club’s lawyers have indicated they would file a motion for appeal, and the presiding judge indicated that the order would not go into effect until he was able to review the arguments of the club and consider their rights to free speech.
The jury’s verdict was not a total loss for the club. They did not find that the government was entitled to require forfeiture for logos on things like belt buckles, bandanas, stickers, and lighters. They did not find any nexus between these particular items and the group’s criminal behaviour. This case is notable because the government has presented a creative argument in an attempt to mitigate a motorcycle club’s power and influence. Whether it will be upheld on appeal will be interesting to see.