Inside a stately Orange County federal courtroom on June 4, U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter silently eyed a wild looking bunch of at least 25 Mongols Motorcycle Club members dominating the public seating section.
Several of the club’s crew looked bar-room ready to rumble with anyone who held their probing gazes, but Carter, a heroic U.S. Marine survivor of a brutal 1968 military battle in the Vietnam War at Khe Sanh as well as one of the nation’s most colorful judges, wanted the motley crew to know who is in charge and not to be challenged: him.
“What a great impression you make,” the federal judge sarcastically said to the Mongols during the pre-trial hearing.
He told the group–which has a history of murder, robbery and extortion in Southern California–they are welcome to attend proceedings, but if he sees any of them “looking cross-eyed” at witnesses during an upcoming trial there will be hell to pay. “I had a whole row of about 50 cops do that,” he said about an Anaheim police excessive force case.
To press his point, Carter asked the Mongols in attendance, folks who spent an inordinate amount of time mad-dogging an undercover federal law enforcement agent working the case, if they “got it.”
“Yes, sir,” most of them quickly responded.
The Mongols are involuntarily in Carter’s ninth-floor Santa Ana courtroom because the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is trying to use the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act to rob the club of two of its iconic trademark logos in a ground-breaking forfeiture claim.
It’s not clear what the government would do if it grabs the rights to the logos, but Carter dismissed DOJ’s first attempt at the move as “legally deficient” in 2015.
Two years later, a three-judge panel at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed his ruling without determining if prosecutors can legally take the trademarks.
In late May, DOJ officials filed an amended complaint against the Mongols, adding new murder, attempted murder and narcotics trafficking charges in their effort.
The expected six to eight-week trial at Orange County’s Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse was scheduled to begin June 26, but the parties asked Carter to delay the case until October 23.
An assistant United States attorney told the judge he will use the testimony of undercover agents who infiltrated the Mongols organization to establish it remains a lethal criminal enterprise subject to federal forfeiture laws.
Carter expressed renewed concerns about the government’s theory given First Amendment protections, noting that self-identified Nazis freely rallied in Skokie, Illinois in the 1970s and “idiots” at the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas have openly prayed “for the death of marines” because the nation enacted gay rights.
Joseph A. Yanny, the raspy-voiced Los Angeles-based attorney for the Mongols, argued DOJ is “trying to hang the club on the [criminal] actions of rogue individuals,” who have been booted from the organization which is now home to “law abiders.”
“Well, that’s your claim,” responded Carter, who has experience presiding over cases involving dangerous criminal street gangs like the Aryan Brotherhood and Mexican Mafia. “I’ll have to hear testimony.”
Among DOJ’s new counts against the Mongols is the alleged sale of a tiny amount of narcotics, a charge the judge said made him “scratch my head in amazement.” He asked, “Does anyone really care about 34 grams of drugs?”
The Mongols chuckled.
But a federal prosecutor responded, “I do.”
R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.