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Mongols Take on U.S. in Trademark Case

LOS ANGELES (CN) - The Mongols motorcycle gang, or club, sued Uncle Sam, claiming the federal government cannot seize its trademarks, because RICO law permits such seizures only against people.

The Mongols Nation Motorcycle Club sued Attorney General Eric Holder, in Federal Court. The Mongols claim they are not a criminal organization and cannot be held responsible for a few of its members' actions. And they claim that a federal court already has ruled that the government cannot use RICO law to seize an organization's trademarks, as Holder is trying to do.

"The government is improperly attempting to seize the collective marks of the club and its members because the RICO forfeiture statute is an in personam mechanism that can only be employed against individuals committing a crime under RICO and cannot be applied against the club which bears no responsibility for the actions of members who act outside of the scope of their membership with the club," the complaint states.

The Mongols claim their club constitution "forbids criminal activity," expels anyone who is convicted of a "serious felony," and bans members from wearing their patches for "personal gain or criminal activity."

Nonetheless, the government filed a RICO indictment in 2008 against some of the Mongols' ex-members, in United States v. Cavazos.

According to the Mongols' complaint, the government claimed that the club was an "enterprise" and that law enforcement officials were "entitled to seize any item bearing or displaying the marks from any member of the club."

The Mongols say the district court rejected that argument in 2009 when it ruled in favor of an unindicted member who challenged the Cavazos action, in Ramon Rivera v. Ronnie Carter.

Among other things, the court found that club members' right to wear marks as a form of free speech "outweigh[ed] the government's interest in suppressing an intimidating symbol," the complaint states. The court also found that the government had no right to seize the marks and stop the entire club from wearing them just because a few members were charged with racketeering, the complaint adds.

The Mongols claim the government has re-launched RICO forfeiture proceedings despite the Rivera ruling because the club dissolved and reincorporated in April 2012.

The Mongols say they first registered their trademarks when the club was established in Montebello, Los Angeles in 1969.

"The marks were previously registered under Mongols Nation Motorcycle Club, Inc., but that corporation has since dissolved and the club subsequently reincorporated as MNMC," the complaint states.

Since the government failed in its attempt to seize their marks in Cavazos, the Mongols say, it has no right to seize them now just because the club has a new name and its marks are pending trademark approval under that name.

"Here, the government attempts to re-litigate the same issue with what it will construe as a different party," the complaint states.

The club claims the government's renewed attempt to seize their marks infringes on their free speech rights.

"Members of the club wear patches to express their membership and association with the club. These patches further allow members to communicate with one another and to express their love of motorcycles and motorcycle riding. The nature of motorcycle riding stands for freedom and liberty," the complaint states.

"The marks and their embodiment in the form of patches are collectively owned by the club and the members as a whole. The marks were determined in Rivera to be collective membership marks. The collective membership marks are expressions of free speech thereby protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution."

The Mongols seek declaratory judgment that "the marks are not subject to RICO forfeiture," and that the club is their only lawful owner.

They are represented by Bob Bernstein of Burbank.

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