Motorcycle club’s emblem target of California jury

Glenn W. Peterson

A wide-ranging, eight-week racketeering trial in California has branded a motorcycle club known as the Mongols as a criminal enterprise, allegedly engaging in offenses involving firearms, drugs and violent crime. However, the decision of a California jury last week that the group must forfeit its trademarked logo raises questions about due process and free speech.

The logo in question is a cartoonish figure brandishing a sword while seated atop a motorcycle and wearing its hair in a queue, meant to evoke an image of the medieval Asian warrior Genghis Khan. Members of the club regard it with a certain amount of reverence as a source of identity, which is purportedly why authorities have targeted it as a way to break the spirits of those within the organization. Some lawyers say that stripping the club of its symbol is even worse, in a way, than prosecution or conviction on criminal charges.

Forfeiture of the group’s logo may represent a violation of the First Amendment, and some lawyers argue that the verdict may not hold up to scrutiny under constitutional law. Despite the verdict, the presiding judge in the case intends to review the case and consider the free speech rights of the motorcycle club, promising not to order the forfeiture until he has had a chance to do so. In the meanwhile, the attorneys representing the group have filed a motion for acquittal.

The scope of the verdict does not extend to all items bearing the logo, including bandannas, belt buckles and jewelry, but the jury’s decision allows government authorities to retain items seized in previous raids.

According to one intellectual property law expert, only those who use trademarks as a mark of collective membership, as the motorcycle club does, or in commerce can claim ownership of a trademark, and that efforts to gain control of them are therefore insufficient. Intellectual property law is complex, and those involved in such a dispute may wish to contact an attorney.