IT'S DOUBTFUL that bikers in the Pagan's Motorcycle Club keep membership lists, bylaws and bank statements in neat file cabinets, but officials in New Jersey say they need whatever records the club has to defend themselves against a lawsuit.
The New Jersey State Police are the defendants in a civil-rights suit filed by two Pagan's Motorcycle Club members and a former Tribe MC member.
The suit stems from a July 30, 2009, traffic stop involving six motorcycles in Burlington County that lasted more than an hour. The bikers were ticketed for not having approved helmets and were told to remove their "colors," the patched jackets members wear. Their attorneys claim that the demand violated the members' First Amendment rights.
On Thursday in U.S. District Court in Camden, those same attorneys said the state was trying to violate the bikers' First Amendment rights again, and possibly suggesting a criminal investigation by requesting Pagan's membership lists, medical records, debit-card receipts and any club-related correspondence among the plaintiffs.
"They're looking for any pretext, any excuse, to open up the files of an organization they despise," attorney Bill Murphy said to Magistrate Judge Ann Marie Donio.
Deputy New Jersey Attorney General Roshan Shah told Donio that the state needed medical records because the bikers were claiming that they could no longer ride their motorcycles due to emotional distress they allege they've suffered from the traffic stop.
"Because, really, you're suffering from trauma because someone told you to take your jacket off?" Shah said.
The plaintiff's helmets were found to be legal and a prosecutor dismissed the charges at a later hearing, but Shah requested debit records and receipts to determine whether they bought new, legal motorcycle helmets before their court appearance.
The state wants the membership lists, Shah said, to check whether state troopers pulled those Pagan's members over at a higher rate than they do other motorcyclists. But Shah is also seeking Pagan's bylaws and charters to prove that the group, deemed an outlaw motorcycle gang by authorities, mandates violence. He said "officer safety" was a reason why the traffic stop lasted so long.
"Their own administrators, the people at the top of their food chain, say, 'Yeah, we're a criminal enterprise,' " Shah said.
Murphy said releasing the membership list would have a "chilling effect" on the Pagan's recruitment of new members. His co-counsel, Boyd Spencer, believes the state is hoping they either get the records or that the Pagan's fold and drop the lawsuit.
"Basically, if you sue us, we'll invade your private business and your private lives," he said.
Donio did not rule on the membership lists but said the plaintiffs could hand over receipts if they pertain to motorcycle helmets, and medical records if they pertain to treatment for stress. Spencer was doubtful his clients had either.
"They don't have health insurance," Spencer told Donio, "so I don't think they go to the doctors very much."
The entire traffic stop was captured by mounted cameras in the police cruisers.
"Now you're all going to take your jackets off, because on this highway, these are the only colors," one of the state troopers, referring to State Police blue and gold, told the group after nearly 50 minutes had passed.
The bikers didn't budge.