LOS ANGELES -- On California's freeways, in biker bars and during not-infrequent clashes with other outlaw motorcycle clubs, members of the Mongols are easily identified.
They are the ones in the leather vests and jackets adorned on the back with the distinctive image of a Genghis Khan figure in sunglasses riding a motorcycle beneath the group's name, spelled out in large block letters.
Since the group was formed in the late 1960s, the logo has been a potent element of the Mongols' identity, which over the years has included an unmistakable penchant for drug dealing and violence by many members. Only those who have been admitted to the inner ranks of the insular group are allowed to stitch the large patches of the insignia onto their riding apparel. And in the closed-off world of motorcycle clubs, built largely around rivalries and alliances with other groups, the logo is an unmistakable totem.
The ability of Mongols leaders to use their image was dealt a blow Friday when a federal jury in Santa Ana decided the club should be stripped of the trademarks it holds on its coveted logo as punishment in a racketeering case.
The verdict, however, set up a First Amendment showdown over the right of the club's members to express themselves.
Last month, at the end of a lengthy trial, the same jury convicted the Mongols motorcycle club of racketeering and conspiracy charges, finding the group shared responsibility for murder, attempted murder and drug crimes committed by individual members.
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The verdict allowed prosecutors from the U.S. attorney's office to pursue something they had long sought: a court order forcing the Mongols to forfeit the trademarks as part of its sentence.
The jury returned this week to hear a day of testimony and arguments from prosecutors and the Mongols' defense attorney on the forfeiture issue. The panel had to decide whether the logo was linked closely enough to the crimes for which the Mongols organization had been convicted to warrant forcing the club to forfeit the trademarks to the U.S. government.
After two days of deliberating, it decided there was, in fact, a tight nexus between the image and one of the criminal charges the club faced -- conspiracy to commit racketeering.
Calling the verdict the "first of its kind in the nation," U.S. Attorney Nicola Hanna said seizing the Mongols trademarks would serve to "attack the sources of a criminal enterprise's economic power and influence."