Judge Refuses To Hand The Government Biker Gang's Trademark

from the mongolian-beef dept

If we were ever to hand out some kind of award for a trademark dispute due to both its insanity and longevity, surely that award would go the US Government’s attempt to strip the Mongols, a motorcycle gang, of its trademark. This whole thing actually started way back in 2008, with the government arresting several Mongols members for all manner of crimes ranging from extortion to murder. On top of prosecuting these cases and the gang, it requested it be allowed to seize the Mongols trademark on its logo, reasoning that this would allow them to simply strip any members of any biker gear that displayed the logo, even though that isn’t what trademark allows one to do. This somehow continued several years later, when the remaining members of the gang claimed the group collectively owned the trademark in question, meaning that the government couldn’t simply take control of it.

And, amazingly, this whole thing continues to today. It looked for all the world that this case was finally going to wrap up with the trademark being handed over to the US Government. In a jury verdict, the jury had ordered exactly that to happen. To the suprise of many, however, the judge overseeing the case stepped in and disregarded that part of the judgement, arguing that it would violate the First Amendment.

Denying Mongol members the ability to display the logo on their leather riding jackets and elsewhere would overstep the right to free expression embedded in the 1st Amendment, as well as the 8th Amendment’s ban on excessive penalties, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter found.

“There is a realistic danger that the transfer of the rights associated with the symbol to the government will have a chilling effect,” Carter wrote.

The government’s request relied on likening the trademark the Mongols had on its iconography as property of the same kind as its guns and contraband, suggesting that the logo was a chief tool of a criminal enterprise. Forfeiture laws are not typically used in this way, and it was quite clear that the government was attempting to stretch all kinds of definitions as a way to cripple every last bit of a biker gang that is indeed quite infamous. Still, the judge rightly notes that the bar with regard to the First Amendment is quite high, and allowing the government to essentially strip speech in this way would be both unconstitutional and would create a chilling effect on speech more generally.

The judge said 1st Amendment issues were undeniably at play because the type of trademarks the Mongols own, called collective membership marks, don’t serve any commercial purpose but only help members to identify themselves as part of a group.

And because the jury had found the logo was tied directly to the conspiracy charge but not the murders and other violent crimes with which the club was accused of participating, Carter concluded forfeiting the trademarks would violate the Constitution’s 8th Amendment, which forbids the government from imposing excessive punishments.

Denying members control over the logo would be an “unjustified and grossly disproportionate” punishment, he wrote.

And, so, the gang gets to keep its logo, though the government has announced it may appeal this specific decision. It really shouldn’t, though. Already the biker gang has been convicted of multiple crimes, from rackateering to murder. Going after the trademark again, even after all of these years, is pretty clear overreach.

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Comments on “Judge Refuses To Hand The Government Biker Gang's Trademark”

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Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

It's not about...

…the Mongols.

It’s about setting Precedent.

If they’re granted this, they’ll go after every group they don’t like by attacking the "logo" of the group.

First few will be things "everyone" agrees on – swastikas, Jolly Roger, etc.

After a handful of those, it’ll be everything from gang colors to religious iconography.

Anonymous Coward says:

It’s a club, not a gang. The purpose of the club isn’t illegal activity, though obviously some of its members engage in it. Actual estimates are that about 10% of 1%er motorcycle club members engage in organized illegal activity, similar to other organizations, such as the PBA, and less than the population in general, where around 50% have been convicted of a crime.

IF they entire organization was involved in illegal activities, then the government likely would have succeeded in seizing the logo. As it is, the ruling penalizes many people who’ve done absolutely nothing wrong, which is where that whole 8th amendment thing comes in.

btr1701 (profile) says:

that award would go the US Government’s attempt to strip the Mongols, a motorcycle gang, of its trademark

I’ve never understood the point of this. Every news report I read claims it’s a weapon the government can use to keep the gang from wearing their cuts with the Mongol logo on them, but that seems nonsensical to me. Just because an image is trademarked, doesn’t mean an individual can’t wear it on a piece of clothing.

I mean, I could make myself a t-shirt with the McDonalds golden arches on it and wear it around and no one can tell me I have to take it off. Certainly it’s not a matter for law enforcement, which is how this Mongol thing is envisioned. The theory as I’ve seen it explained is that the cops see a guy riding down the road wearing a Mongols cut and since the government owns the trademark, the cops can now can pull him over and force him to take it off, and now that they have him stopped, maybe that leads to probable cause to search for other things.

Which is just ludicrous. The idea that some state trooper is going to be policing trademark violations on the side of the road– or even has the authority to do so– is nuts.

The only thing losing their trademark to the government would keep the MC from doing is selling apparel and other items in commerce, which I don’t think they do anyway. From everything I’ve heard, they jealously guard their logo and don’t want or let any non-members to display it. But trademark can’t stop them from making their own cuts and wearing them in public.

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