A federal judge in California has declined to approve a jury’s decision to strip the Mongols motorcycle club of its trademarked logo.
U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, who oversaw the racketeering trial late last year when the Mongol Nation was convicted, cited constitutional protections against intrusions on free speech and excessive fines, in his decision Thursday.
"The First Amendment and Eighth Amendment permanently prohibit the Government's request to forfeit the rights associated with the collective symbols," Carter wrote in the decision.
Prosecutors said they were disappointed in the ruling and are considering an appeal.
Attorney Joe Yanny, who represents the Mongols, said that the ruling will protect members of all groups. "You don't have the right to steal the identity of an organization," he said. "I think the Mongols will succeed in the appeal, if it goes that far."
Yanny also said that prosecution of the club "was an attempt at collective guilt" and that the Mongols had already "cleaned up its own act" and expelled members who were alleged to be involved in the illegal acts.
Federal prosecutors have been trying for more than a decade to get at the Mongols' trademarked logo, which they say forms the core of the identity of what they have called a motorcycle gang.
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Carter wrote the jury found that the government "did not prove the requisite nexus between the collective membership marks" and the racketeering offense, but that the collective membership marks were forfeitable as to the racketeering conspiracy alone.
"The forfeiture of the rights associated with a symbol that has been in continuous use by an organization since 1969 is unjustified and grossly disproportionate to this offense," the judge wrote. "To hold otherwise sets a dangerous precedent that enables the Government to target the associative symbols of organizations it chooses to prosecute for RICO conspiracy."
Carter referenced past RICO actions brought by the government against the International Brotherhood of Teamsters over the influence of organized crime, and noted that the Teamsters' still own the mark and the symbol is used by its more than 1 million members today.
The jury issued a verdict that the Mongol Nation should be stripped of its trademarked logo after finding it guilty of racketeering and conspiracy. Prosecutors had argued that it operated as an organized criminal enterprise involved in murder, attempted murder and illegally distributing methamphetamine and cocaine. The decision in January to strip the Mongols of its trademark needed final approval from a judge.
"As we argued in our briefs, we believe the court was required by federal law and precedent to issue the forfeiture order requested by the government," the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California based in Los Angeles said in a statement.
"While affirming the jury's guilty verdicts on racketeering charges, the court’s ruling nullifies the jury's finding that these marks are a core component of the Mongols' decades-long pattern of murder, assault and drug trafficking," the U.S. Attorney's Office said.
Carter wrote in the ruling that the Mongols' members' rights to express their identity through the symbol is speech protected by the First Amendment.
He cited past comments by another judge about the Mongols symbol, and that judge wrote: "Though the symbol may at times function as a mouthpiece for unlawful or violent behavior, this is not sufficient to strip speech of its First Amendment protection."
Then-U.S. Attorney Thomas O'Brien first announced the unusual legal bid to seize the trademarked logo after 79 members of the Mongols were indicted in 2008.
Prosecutors have claimed in court documents that the Mongols are a nationwide organization. Approximately 400 of its 500 to 600 members are thought to be located in Southern California, and some are current or former members of Los Angeles County street gangs.
Defense lawyers have said the motorcycle group is simply a loose configuration of riders in the Southwest, not an organized criminal enterprise.
The judge also denied a request from the Mongol Nation for an acquittal and new trial and tentatively granted requests for the forfeiture of weapons, ammunition, body armor and other property seized by federal authorities.
The Mongols organization still faces sentencing on the two racketeering counts, and the government has said it could seek fines of up to $250,000 on each count, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office said. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for April 24, according to Thursday's ruling.
Yanny, the attorney representing the Mongols, said the group does not commercialize the logo, and people who use it must be members of the club.
"These are hardworking members of society," Yanny said. "You've got everything from garbage men to drug counselors in that club."
Phil Helsel is a reporter for NBC News.
Andrew Blankstein is an investigative reporter for NBC News. He covers the Western United States, specializing in crime, courts and homeland security.