The state of Illinois and the American Outlaws Association are locked into a bizarre dispute. The Outlaws say their patches are private property. The state contends they are contraband.
Case law and the Constitution are on the Outlaws side but the case isn’t really about the rule of law. This case is about the state using the judicial process to punish people for something that isn’t actually a crime – their personal associations.
The case began with a bar brawl. Five men wearing cut-off jackets or vests with patches on the back that identified them as Outlaws and a woman wearing a “property of” patch walked into a bar called the Lizard Lounge in unincorporated Wonder Lake, Illinois looking, according to the local Sheriff, “for a specific person.” Police say the Outlaws punched a couple of patrons and the woman who came with them spat beer in another woman’s face.
The alleged assaults took place on November 30, 2012. Police wrote a list, procured warrants, executed raids and seized five handguns, five rifles, ammunition, brass knuckles, two switchblade knives, a black jack, seven grams of marijuana, a gram of cocaine, what was described as drug paraphernalia and three cuts with three sets of patches. Six people were arrested and charged with felony aggravated battery and mob action. Four of them negotiated plea deals and as part of those deals they agreed to forfeit their vests with the Outlaws patches attached.
Technically, as most readers here already know, the patches were the legal property of the AOA and they were only on loan to the accused. Virtually every motorcycle club in the world has this policy.
But local prosecutors Randi Freeze and Robert Zalud argued that the AOA was symbolically responsible for the bar invasion so the patches were forfeitable. Their implied argument was that the five men and the woman would never have behaved the way they did if they had left their Outlaws insignia at home. Rather than the man making the patch something admirable, they argued, the patch made men criminals.
A hearing was held on whether the government could keep the vests or was compelled to return them to the club. Various biker experts were called to testify. A biker expert and local deputy named Kyle Mandernack told Judge Sharon L. Prather that, “The vests are directly related to facilitate street gang-related crime.”
The United States Supreme Court, in a case called Roberts v. United States, had already laid down the general ground rules about which symbols are legal: “An individual’s freedom to speak, to worship, and to petition the government for the redress of grievances could not be vigorously protected from interference by the State unless a correlative freedom to engage in group effort toward those ends were not also guaranteed. According protection to collective effort on behalf of shared goals is especially important in preserving political and cultural diversity and in shielding dissident expression from suppression by the majority. Consequently, we have long understood as implicit in the right to engage in activities protected by the First Amendment a corresponding right to associate with others in pursuit of a wide variety of political, social, economic, educational, religious, and cultural ends.”
The AOA was represented by an attorney named Joel Rabb who argued that no matter what the people wearing them did, the patches were still the property of the motorcycle club and they should be returned to their rightful owner.
Prather disagreed and last April she ruled that it was legal for police to steal and keep the vests.
The Outlaws Motorcycle Club appealed and this Tuesday Rabb told the Second District Appellate Court in Elgin, Illinois that the confiscation was a Constitutional issue. He said, “Wearing the vest in and of itself is not a crime,”
When the judges asked Assistant State’s Attorney Jana Blake Dickson why the state wanted to keep the patches, she replied, “I imagine getting the patches off the street” would make “it harder to use (them) as a threat.”
The case is currently under advisement. The time it takes Illinois appeals courts to issue decisions after hearing oral arguments varies wildly. In 2014, for example, the appeals courts decided some cases in as little as eight days but another case took the court 13 months to decide.