By Serge F. Kovaleski
LOS ANGELES — For many years, federal law enforcement authorities have been trying to take down the Mongols, a biker group they consider one of the most dangerous criminal enterprises in the country.
They have infiltrated it with undercover agents. They have hammered members with charges ranging from drug dealing to money laundering to murder. They have conducted mass arrests that resulted in dozens of guilty pleas, including one by a past president.
But after a decade of trying, they have failed to deliver what they view as the coup de grâce: seizing control of the Mongols’ trademarked logo, a drawing of a brawny Genghis Khan-like figure sporting a queue and sunglasses, riding a chopper while brandishing a sword.
Now, in a racketeering trial underway in Orange County, Calif., federal Prosecutors believe they have their best chance yet to take the Mongols’ intellectual property, using a novel approach to asset forfeiture law, which allows the seizure of goods used in the commission of crimes.
Prosecutors argue that taking the logo will deprive the group of its “unifying symbol” — the banner under which prosecutors say the group marauds.
If federal prosecutors have their way, one of them boasted at an earlier point in the court battle, the police could stop any Mongol and “literally take the jacket right off his back.”
But legal experts question the prosecutors’ grasp of intellectual property law. “Trademark rights are not tangible personal property like a jacket. They are intangible rights,” said Evan Gourvitz, an intellectual property lawyer with the law firm Ropes & Gray in New York. “But prosecutors are treating a trademark like a jacket.”
The Mongols are equally mystified. The logo — also called a patch — is emblazoned on the vests, T-shirts and motorcycles of hundreds of members.
“Lots of brothers have tattoos of the marks on their necks and heads and everywhere,” David Santillan, the national president of the Club, said. “How do you regulate that?”
For bikers, the patch is key to belonging and the optics of appearing tough, and members can spend months or even years proving themselves before they earn the right to wear it.
“The patch is like the American flag to these guys and speaks to the identity of the club, the individual and the culture,” said William Dulaney, a retired associate professor who is an expert on motorcycle groups. “Some clubs have the rule that if the colors even touch the ground, they have to be destroyed.”
The Mongols’ marks, like those of other biker groups, are registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Clubs have aggressively protected their patches from unauthorized use.
The Negative Effects of a Government Grab of the Mongols Logo and Trademarks. What are the risks to you and the biker community as a whole if they win?
The Hells Angels have gone after large corporations including Toys “R” Us, the Alexander McQueen fashion line, Amazon, Saks, and Walt Disney, accusing them of infringement on its death’s head logo — a skull in a winged helmet — and other club symbols.
They have usually been successful, reaching settlements that require defendants to cease using the trademarks and to recall and destroy merchandise, among other concessions.
The Mongols have had their share of run-ins with the law. The group was founded in Montebello, Calif., in 1969 and has about 1,000 members in the United States, most of whom are Hispanic. About half of the club’s membership is in California, though Mr. Santillan said 11 new chapters were recently established in Texas.
In 2012 Christopher Ablett, a suspected member of the Modesto, Calif., chapter, was sentenced to life in prison for the 2008 murder of the president of the San Francisco chapter of the Hells Angels, Mark Guardado. In 2014 David Martinez, a Mongols member in San Gabriel, Calif., was charged with murder in the shooting death of a Pomona police officer.