WASHINGTON — Uncle Sam could end up owning the name of the Mongols, a West Coast motorcycle gang accused by federal prosecutors of "crimes and acts of violence."
Like other motorcycle outfits including the Hells Angels, the Brotherhood Nomads, the Misfits and the Wicked Women, the Mongols trademarked their name. Now, culminating a three-year undercover investigation, federal prosecutors are hoping to take that name away from them.
The move is sure to face court scrutiny.
"This trademark is subject to forfeiture," U.S. Attorney Thomas O'Brien in Los Angeles declared Tuesday. "If the court grants our request . . . then if any law enforcement officer sees a Mongol wearing his patch, he will be authorized to stop that gang member and literally take the jacket right off his back."
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The apparently unprecedented trademark forfeiture move comes as authorities in Los Angeles filed a 177-page indictment charging 79 Mongols with an assortment of racketeering, drug and money laundering offenses. Raids pulled in gang members in California, Washington and Colorado, among other states.
While prosecutors target tattooed gang members who bear nicknames like "Risky," "Bullet" and "Suicide," however, outside legal experts question the notion of seizing a gang name.
"It's an interesting theory, but you've really got to wonder whether it would have any practical effect," noted David B. Smith, formerly the deputy director of the Justice Department's asset forfeiture office. "My hunch is the Mongols are just going to keep wearing their patches."
Smith, the author of "Prosecution and Defense of Forfeiture Cases," added in an interview Wednesday that while the Justice Department's move was "pretty clever," he wondered "what a judge and jury would think about the case."
Free speech scholar Rodney Smolla, dean of the Washington and Lee University School of Law, added Wednesday that the Justice Department action poses the possibility of "a violation of the First Amendment."
The consequences certainly could be unusual. If the Justice Department succeeds, the federal government will own rights to the name Mongols. The government could then charge violators with trademark infringement; or, at the least, have one more reason to confront gang members on the street.
The Mongols gang has more than 50 chapters in California cities, as well as in a dozen other states. Its greatest strength is in Southern California, where prosecutors say about 400 of the gang's 600 members live.
"Members often commit their crimes and acts of violence with the conviction that they cannot be prosecuted because they believe victims and witnesses are afraid to testify against them," the indictment states.
Prosecutors identified for potential forfeiture the Mongols name, a home in West Covina, Calif., and "at least" $5 million. Forfeiture would follow conviction. The money and home are conventional forfeiture targets. The trademarked name isn't.
The self-described Mongol Nation formally filed for a trademark on the name Mongols in July 2003, Patent and Trademark Office records show. The applicants explained they were "promoting the interests of persons in the recreation of riding motorcycles."
"The membership patch can only be worn by a member, and only if the member is in good standing," noted the application prepared by the Mongols' attorney, Michael Doram.
The trademark application was signed by Mongols Chief Executive Ruben "Doc" Cavazos, who was among the men arrested Tuesday.
In January 2005, the trademark was granted. In April this year, records show, the Mongol Nation transferred the trademark registration to a newly established Pasadena, Calif., company called Shotgun Productions. Doram also represents Shotgun Productions.
"I will have no comment to offer," Doram said by e-mail Wednesday.
The transfer of the trademark registration could potentially complicate the forfeiture scenario, as Shotgun Productions is not named in the new indictment.
More typically, authorities will seize money and property, disabling alleged criminal enterprises while boosting state and federal agency coffers. Last year, the Justice Department reported asset forfeitures totaling $1.5 billion, including a Cessna 441 airplane in Florida, $2.9 million in cash in Beverly Hills and a $14 million home in Las Vegas.
Local law-enforcement agencies like the results. Last year, for instance, the Justice Department reported transferring to the Fresno, Calif., Police Department nine seized vehicles with a combined value of $143,000 while the Gainesville Police Department in Florida got some free electronic equipment.
But even before the latest intellectual property venture, the technique has been controversial.
Earlier this year, for instance, conservatives criticized the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for its "Always Think Forfeiture" slogan. The agency once distributed Leatherman tools engraved with the phrase, prompting congressional complaints.
"The slogan will not be used in the future in any capacity," bureau spokeswoman Deb Satkowiak said in May.
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