PASADENA, Calif. (CN) — The federal government asked a Ninth Circuit panel on Friday to dissolve the rights of the Mongol Nation Motorcycle Club to enforce their trademark of their logo, typically worn on patches sewn on jackets and vests of their members.
During oral arguments Friday morning, lawyers for both the U.S. government and the Mongols asked the three-judge panel to overturn two cases — the Mongols want a 2018 conviction of the entire motorcycle club on racketeering offenses tosses, while the government want a ruling that said the Mongols could retain ownership of their trademark logo overturned.
The three judges appeared disinclined to dump either ruling.
Federal prosecutors have described the Mongols as "a beehive of pernicious criminal activity." In a brief to the Ninth Circuit, they called the Mongols "a group of violent motorcycle gang members who orchestrated the Mongol Gang’s commission of brutal crimes, including multiple murders, assaults, shootings, stabbings and drug trafficking."
A decade-long prosecution led to the conviction of 77 members of the Mongol Nation, a Southern California-based club founded in 1969. A federal jury also convicted the Mongols organization itself, under the RICO statute, fined the club $500,000 and found it should be forced to forfeit a large stockpile of vests, guns and ammunition seized by federal agents in raids. The jury also decided the club should forfeit their trademarked patch — a cartoon depiction of a Mongol warrior riding a motorcycle — over to the government.
But months later, U.S. District Judge David Carter said the Mongols could keep their trademark, ruling that to force the club to give it up would violate its First Amendment rights to free speech and association, and would also constitute an excessive fine prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.
In an attempt to satisfy Carter's First Amendment concerns, the federal government, in its appeal, asked the panel to simply dissolve the trademark, effectively allowing anyone to buy and sell products with the design.
Mongol Nation attorney George Steele suggested that dissolving the trademark could lead to violence, since motorcycle gangs often use intimidation and force to make sure no non-members wear their logos.
"It’s a very good way to promote violence if you say, 'We’re going to make it open season for anybody who wants to infringe on the Mongols marks and make sure you can’t be sued for doing so,'" said Steele. "Some Mongol who feels strongly about his right of association may have a lapse in judgement."
He added: "Having failed at seizing the patch, they now seek to enjoin the people who own the patch from protecting the patch by legal means."
The judges appeared sympathetic to Steele's argument.
"I’m, for the life of me, trying to figure out what the government is actually trying to do, getting these marks," U.S Circuit Judge Danielle Forrest, a Donald Trump appointee, told Assistant U.S. Attorney Bram Alden.
"All we are asking for now is that Mongol Nation be precluded from using trademark law and weaponizing it against what they would call potential infringers of the mark," Alden responded. "I understand that may not be much, but that is the limited relief the government Is now seeking in order to accommodate the district court's concerns."
The judges saw another problem with what the government was asking — the RICO statute allows the government to seize property, not to destroy trademarks.
"RICO requires title to be vested to the United States," said U.S. Circuit Judge Holly Thomas, a Joe Biden appointee. "What exactly is the legal mechanism that you’re trying to use?"
U.S Circuit Judge Sandra Ikuta, a George W. Bush appointee, seemed to agree when she said the government was "attempting to do something the RICO statute doesn’t allow."
Alden called the request a "more modest offer to ensure there is no chilling effect on speech."He pointed to a case from 2012, when the Hell's Angels motorcycle club sued Toys 'R' Us for trademark infringement over a line of yo-yos with the club's famous skull and wings logo. The suit was later settled.
"A gang can take a trademark interest and derive value from that," Alden said. "That is all the government is seeking — that’s all the district court allowed us to seek."
Steele argued the Mongols aren't a business. "The marks that Mongol Nation sells, they sell to themselves. This is not a commercial operation at all."
He added: "The goal of the government is to enjoin the Mongols from having access to the court."
The panel took the matter under submission.
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