This week, federal prosecutors in the Middle District of Tennessee in Nashville announced they have indicted over twelve members and associates of the Clarksville Chapter of the Mongols Motorcycle Club, a motorcycle club with membership across the country.
The indictment is extensive, and perhaps overly broad. There are 54 counts that include a wide variety of serious federal criminal charges. The government’s theory, completely unproven at this point, is that members of this otherwise lawful organization were involved in a racketeering (RICO) conspiracy that committed a wide variety of crimes, including murder, kidnapping, drug trafficking, and money laundering.
Unfortunately, it seems the media has already convicted the Mongols without waiting to see the evidence, as news outlets parrot the indictment’s characterizations of the Motorcycle Club as a “gang” and the actions of its members as “organized crime.”
But calling them a “gang” or “organized crime” doesn’t mean they are either. And even if individual members may have committed some state-level crimes, that doesn’t mean the organization should be charged in this massive federal indictment with a RICO conspiracy.
To convict any member of the Mongols for the racketeering charges, the government will have to prove that these individuals were “employed by or associated with an enterprise,” and that they participated, directly or indirectly, in that enterprise’s “affairs through a pattern of racketeering activity.”
The last element may be crucial in this case. Even if the government can prove that these indicted individuals are members of the Mongols Motorcycle Club, their membership in the organization is perfectly legal unless the government can prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that some of the members engaged in a “pattern of racketeering” activity. That means the government has to prove that the members committed at least two crimes from a list of specific racketeering crimes as part of an ongoing criminal enterprise.
I anticipate the government will try to connect any criminal activity by individual members of the Mongols to the Mongols organization. For example, the indictment highlights the fact that the indicted individuals paid membership dues and met for weekly meetings to discuss Club business. Of course, the Boy Scouts of Americas have similar policies for meetings and membership dues too. But if a Boy Scout commits a crime, it doesn’t mean the Boy Scouts organization is a criminal enterprise.
Federal RICO laws were enacted decades ago primarily to target true organized crime families. But ambitious prosecutors have stretched the law in recent years to cover all sorts of garden variety state crimes committed by individuals that may be loosely associated with an otherwise lawful business, club or group.
It’s important to remember that, in the past, the government has tried and failed to charge the Mongols organization with criminal activity. In 2015, a federal judge dismissed an indictment against the Mongols Motorcycle alleging racketeering. This proves that being indicted doesn’t always lead to a conviction, and that the indictment itself is not evidence of any crime. That’s a lesson the government should try to keep in mind when issuing media releases and having press conferences.
These charges have the potential to infringe upon the members constitutional rights under the First Amendment to be free to associate with each other as members of clubs and organizations. Given the federal government’s aggressive posture and willingness to stretch the law in this indictment, it’s important to protect that right.
Our firm has extensive experience defending people charged in federal RICO cases. If you or someone you know has been unfairly caught up in this case, you are welcome to call me and discuss these charges in complete confidence. We may be able to help.