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Ventura County

Bikers File Civil Rights Claims

Hells Angels who were denied entry to the Ventura County Fair because of their club attire say the new dress code is discriminatory.

November 27, 2002|Tracy Wilson | Times Staff Writer

Eight Hells Angels who were denied entry to the Ventura County Fair this year because of their biker attire filed legal claims Tuesday, accusing fair organizers of violating their civil rights.

The bikers and their families were turned away from the event in late July after refusing to remove black leather vests emblazoned with their motorcycle club's trademark winged skull.

With police standing by, a security guard at the fair told the Hells Angels that the vests violated a new policy banning gang attire.

The bikers responded Tuesday by filing claims against the state of California, which owns the Seaside Park fairgrounds in Ventura, and the local governing board that oversees the 12-day event.

An identical claim was filed against the city of Ventura, whose police officers provided security for the fair and helped draft the new policy.

The claims, precursors to a lawsuit, seek monetary damages for unused fair tickets, emotional distress and violation of civil rights.

At his attorney's office Tuesday, George Christie Jr., president of the Ventura Hells Angels chapter, said fair promoters falsely labeled his motorcycle club a criminal street gang when adopting the new dress code.

Christie called the policy discriminatory and vowed to fight it in court if the claims are rejected.

"What they did was wrong and they know it," Christie said. "We're very upset that we weren't allowed to enjoy the fair like everyone else."

Recent convictions stemming from a massive drug-and-racketeering case involving Ventura Hells Angels, including Christie, prompted law enforcement officials to deem the organization a street gang.

Christie and lawyers representing the Hells Angels contend there is no evidence the biker group meets the legal definition of a gang.

"The Superior Court here has not imposed any gang terms on Hells Angels," attorney Kay Duffy said. "Any time a Hells Angel has been charged with a crime and sentenced, those terms have been stricken by the court."

In addition to Christie and seven other bikers, claims have been filed on behalf of two children and a girlfriend of a prospective Hells Angel, who were also denied entry.

Fair Board members were in a closed meeting late Tuesday and could not be reached for comment.

Deputy City Atty. Amy Albano declined to discuss the allegations because she is named as a defendant. But she stood by the fair policy and described it as legally sound.

The nine-member Fair Board this year approved a tighter policy on gang attire in hopes of stemming violence between rivals.

The policy specifically prohibits anyone wearing clothing, visible tattoos or other articles bearing the name or insignia of a criminal street gang from entering the 62-acre fairgrounds.

It identifies 27 local groups as street gangs, including the Hells Angels and rival Mongols motorcycle clubs.

The policy changes came three months after a shootout between warring bikers left three people dead and at least 16 injured at a Laughlin, Nev., casino where thousands had gathered for a biker party.

At the same time, fair organizers saw a need to firm up their protocol after a Northern California appellate court struck down as unconstitutional a similar policy in Sonoma County.

The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit filed by a Hells Angels member who was denied entry to the Sonoma County Fair and Exposition after refusing to remove a vest emblazoned with the club name. The appellate court found the dress code to be vague and overly broad.

Unlike in the Sonoma case, Ventura lawyers and police say their policy is specific, and they are confident it can withstand a legal challenge.

Duffy contends the Ventura policy suffers from the same flaws cited in the Sonoma case and should be thrown out.

"We hope [the policy] will be thoroughly investigated," she said. "However, if for whatever reason the claims are denied, we will take it to the next level."

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