Being in a motorcycle club is not illegal. Law enforcement action should be based on behavior, not appearance. So being in a motorcycle club should not influence law enforcement’s decision to take action against a person. Despite this, however, there is a common misconception that being a member of a 1% motorcycle club is a self-admission of criminality. Many in law enforcement and some prosecutors label all members of 1% clubs gang members, and the media is all too willing to perpetuate a sensationalized perspective.
Maybe even more troubling, the stereotype is so powerful that even other bikers are susceptible. The truth is that many are wary of clubs and many buy into the sensationalized hype and stereotypes, particularly about 1%’ers. But through education regarding the 1st Amendment maybe these perceptions can be overcome in favor of reality. Then the real work of protecting bikers can be more effectively achieved.
Do Independent Bikers Stereotype 1%’ers as Criminals?
Not all independents believe the hype. But the fact remains, many do. A perfect example of this perception became evident to me at the recent “Meeting of The Minds” event hosted by the Motorcycle Riders Foundation, this year held in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, June 22-25. The theme this year was “Bridging The Gap” in the motorcycle rights movement among all of the different organizations and elements of the motorcycling community that have common political, legislative and legal interests. And the issue that is beginning to galvanize the unification process is motorcycle profiling.
One of the primary gaps to be bridged is between independent bikers and motorcycle club members, often called “Patch Holders”. Although it is becoming more common for independents and patch holders to work together on legislative goals in some areas of the country, in many places there is still resistance.
At the end of a panel I was participating in titled “Bridging The Gap”, an independent raised his hand and said he had to ask the obvious question. What about 1%’ers being gangs and being involved in criminal activity?
It was the perfect opportunity to explain how that perception violates the fundamental principles of association and expression enshrined in the 1st Amendment. It was an opportunity to educate.
Why Membership In A 1% MC is Constitutionally Protected
The United States of America is intended to be a free society. Essential to that freedom is the idea that people should be able to associate with whomever they choose and express that association or other political views. The reality is that not all views or associations are very popular either with government entities or other people. This is particularly true with many political views.
What about organizations or clubs that have had members convicted of crimes, including acts of violence? Well, the Supreme Court says that an individual’s association with an organization that has members that have committed acts of violence or other crimes is protected by the 1st Amendment, and that no restrictions may be imposed on any person that associates with such a group absent specific evidence that they intend to participate in the criminal activity of other members.
What Do The Courts Say?
Recently a federal court concluded:
There is “no evidence that by merely wearing [1% motorcycle club] “colors,” an individual is “involved in or associated with the alleged violent or criminal activity of other [1% motorcycle club] members. It is a fundamental principle that the government may not impose restrictions on an individual “merely because an individual belong[s] to a group, some members of which committed acts of violence.” In fact, the Supreme Court has long “disapproved governmental action . . . denying rights and privileges solely because of a citizen’s association with an unpopular organization.”
- Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169, 185-86 (1972).
To permit [law enforcement officers] to impose restrictions on any person “who wears the insignia of [a 1% motorcycle club], without regard to or knowledge of that individual’s specific intent to engage in the alleged violent activities committed by other members, is antithetical to the basic principles enshrined in the First Amendment and repugnant to the fundamental doctrine of personal guilt that is a hallmark of American jurisprudence.
- (See Coles v. Carlini, U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, Civil No. 10-6132, Opinion, 9/30/2015, p.28)
What Does Basic Logic And Reality Say?
According to government estimates, there are approximately 44,000 members of motorcycle clubs that the government labels gangs or criminal organizations. It’s absurd to suggest that they are all criminals or gang members. The statistical data simply disproves the claim. The courts understand that the purpose of motorcycle clubs, including 1% clubs, is brotherhood centered around motorcycling. Law enforcement refuses to recognize the truth.
Law enforcement says anything positive 1% clubs do is intended as a smokescreen for illegal activity. This fundamental misperception ignores one of the most important functions of the motorcycle club community. Charity and social activism are a driving force of the biking and club community. Every 1% club has fundraisers and benefits for Veterans, Cancer victims, toys runs for children, and to benefit motorcycle accident victims in the community. This is not a smokescreen. It is genuine and tangible activism.