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Beating a Bad Rap

Be mindful of what music you release for others to hear on social media. 

  • Prosecutors in California are now using music to convince juror members of gang affiliation. A popular rap video that was released on YouTube called "What U Do It Fo" has been used in two criminal cases just this year. Deputy District Attorney Satish Jallepalli handled a case against Deandre Mitchell, a rapper known as Laz tha Boy, who wrote and performed "What U Do It Fo." On November 5, 2014, Deandre Mitchell pled guilty to assault with a firearm, after being charged with attempted murder with an enhancement for gang affiliation. Mitchell's lawyer, John Hamasaki, says Jallepalli planned to use the video as evidence against Mitchell as the song states "It's a sad story when your clothes get wet up," or soaked in blood after a shooting.
  • Many young people who see themselves as rappers routinely write lyrics in notebooks, often recording songs on smartphones and uploading them to social media sites. Lyrics often refer to criminal exploits and are rife with exaggeration, bravado and insults, say academics who study hip-hop culture. However, police say they see these lyrics increasingly as signed confessions, and prosecutors use them to sway jurors.
  • Federal Courts and State Courts seem to differ in their opinions as to whether rap music should play a role in prosecution. In two federal appellate cases, United States v. Moore and United States v. Belfast, the 8th U.S. Circuit of Appeals at St. Louis have upheld convictions where the government introduced defendants rap lyrics as evidence. In June, Brooklyn rapper, Ronald Herron, was found guilty of 21 federal charges, including murder, drug dealing, and racketeering, with trial evidence that included his various songs and videos. Prosecutors alleged that Herron was a leader of the Bloods gang and ran a drug operation, and that his rhymes were literal recounting of his crimes. In August, the New Jersey Supreme Court threw out an attempted murder conviction against Vonte Skinner, who wrote notebooks full of lyrics, some of which were used against him at the time of trial. The New Jersey Supreme Court found that the prejudicial effects of the lyrics overwhelmed any probative value they may have had.
  • Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote that no one who have presumed that Bob Marley, who wrote "I Shot the Sheriff," actually shot the sheriff, or that Edgar Allen Poe buried a man beneath his floor boards as depicted in A Tell-Tale Heart, simply because of their artistic endeavors on those subjects. The court reasoned that defendant's lyrics should receive no different treatment.
  • This month, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on whether the placement of threatening rap lyrics on social media is sufficient to prove criminal intent. Most appellate courts that recently considered cases involving potential threats have ruled that no separate proof of intent was necessary for a conviction.
  • While these particular circumstances only involve rap lyrics, some critics suggest that should the U.S. Supreme Court allow this evidence to prove criminal intent, and then the mere statement of one person on social media will also be used. With that in mind, no matter what situation one is involved in, we should all be mindful of what we post and express on social media.

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Davis & Davis Attorneys at Law

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