Saturday, July 19, 2014 | 2 a.m.
WASHINGTON — Federal prosecutors are revving up efforts to seize the Mongols Nation Motorcycle Club trademark, taking with it associated patches and logos.
But even before the scheduled Sept. 30 start of an unusual trial in Southern California, this ride has been far from easy.
Prosecutors' initial trademark-snatching effort failed and cost the Justice Department $253,206 in attorneys fees. When prosecutors tried again, the motorcyclists sued Attorney General Eric Holder. Then, the club tried to get the trial judge disqualified. One attorney left, replaced by another whose past clients included the likes of the Grateful Dead.
"This case is extremely unique," Los Angeles-area attorney Joseph A. Yanny said in an interview, "and it's very, very important."
Yanny represents the Mongols Nation, an organization centered in Southern California with chapters in other states including Florida, Pennsylvania and Washington. The group founded in 1969 bills itself on its website as "the baddest 1 percenter motorcycle club in the world."
A 1991 California Department of Justice study of outlaw motorcycle gangs reported that "the outlaw motorcycle gang members coined this (1 percenter) phrase — using it to differentiate themselves from the law-abiding social motorcycling clubs."
Yanny says that's not the case at all. "It's not a gang," he said. "It's a club."
Justice Department officials call it a criminal enterprise. In a 44-page indictment last year, prosecutors said the organization has a "history of large-scale violence and riots, as a means to threaten and intimidate the victims and witnesses to their crimes."
It's not often that an organization is criminally indicted. It's even more rare for the government to try to seize a trademark through the tool of asset forfeiture.
Typically, seized assets are ill-gotten gains from drug trafficking, financial fraud and other criminal activities.
While trademarks may seem different, they, too, are property.
"The property we seek to forfeit is intellectual property, the trademarks, but that property was used in direct relation to a wide range of illegal activity," said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District of California. "If we prevail in the current case, no member of the gang would be allowed to wear the trademark that we believe is synonymous with the group."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Welk, head of the Central District of California's asset forfeiture branch, is leading the prosecution.
The trademarked Mongols Nation logo now being targeted shows a ponytailed man riding a chopper.
Prosecutors first sought the Mongols' trademark in October 2008, when 79 individual club members were indicted after an extended undercover operation. Most, if not all, pleaded guilty to assorted criminal charges.
A judge, though, ultimately said the accompanying trademark forfeiture effort violated the free-speech rights of unindicted club members who wanted to wear their club patches. The Consumer Law Group of California and the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties subsequently received attorneys fees for their successful challenge to the trademark seizure.
"The government never had any reasonable basis to pursue forfeiture of the (trademarks), much less defend this abuse of its forfeiture powers," U.S. District Judge David O. Carter said in his 2012 decision awarding attorneys fees.
Prosecutors followed up by indicting the organization. The indictment declared, among other allegations, that "the Mongols Gang actively engaged in drug trafficking, especially the distribution of methamphetamine and cocaine," as well as "acts of violence, ranging from battery to murder."
Yanny countered that any criminal acts were committed by "rogue actors" who have since departed the organization. "Most of the guys," he said, are now "clean and sober."
The subsequent pretrial maneuvering has taken some sharp turns, including the Mongols' unsuccessful effort to disqualify U.S. District Judge Otis Wright II.
A former Los Angeles County deputy sheriff, Wright was appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush. Motorcycle club members believe he's biased against them, citing episodes including the judge's 2011 statement that he was "regrettably" vacating a preliminary asset forfeiture decision.
"This is a criminal enterprise, as evidenced by the admission of same by no fewer than 40 people who appeared before me," Wright said at an October 2013 hearing, a transcript shows. "This is a dangerous enterprise."
Last February, one of Wright's Central District of California judicial colleagues rejected the club's effort to disqualify him.
The Mongols similarly failed in their lawsuit against Holder, in which they claimed the asset forfeiture would "unconstitutionally infringe on the club's First Amendment rights." Four months after the suit was filed, Wright dismissed it.
"They are operating under the banner of the Mongols," Wright said at the October 2013 hearing. "It is that name, that reputation, that intimidation factor which enables them to do what they do, isn't it?"