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CA Passes Law Decriminalizing Artistic Expression

During the 1996 murder trial of his client Calvin Broadus, known as the rapper Snoop Dogg, David Kenner recalls the lyrics shared by prosecutors in the Los Angeles courtroom: "Cause it’s 1-8-7 on a undercover cop” — a reference to California’s penal code for murder — from Snoop Dogg’s hit single “Deep Cover” performed with Dr. Dre. The prosecution inferred that Snoop Dogg’s creative output indicated criminality — and guilt — Kenner said. However, the song was written for the soundtrack of a 1992 crime thriller in which Laurence Fishburne stars as a police officer working undercover to bust a West Coast drug cartel. “It was baloney,” Kenner said. “[Killing a cop] was the theme of the movie — that’s what they asked him to do in the recording.” Snoop Dogg was acquitted, but researchers estimate that more than 500 cases over the past 30 years have shown prosecutors using rap lyrics against defendants at trial. Now, California has become the first state to put guardrails on introducing a party’s “creative output” — such as a rapper’s lyrics or videos — into evidence during a criminal proceeding, reports the Washington Post.

Judges must now ask, away from the jury, whether there is sufficient proof that the artistic expression is directly part of the criminal act on trial, before allowing rap lyrics and similar outlets into evidence. On Friday Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the Decriminalizing Artistic Expression Act into law during an online ceremony attended by generations of hip-hop artists that included Killer Mike, Too Short, Meek Mill, Tyga, Saweetie, E-40, and Ty Dolla Sign. California Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, lead author of the legislation, was shocked when he learned that hundreds of people, almost entirely Black and Latino men, were imprisoned mostly based on the evidence from their rap lyrics or status as a rapper. Jones-Sawyer hopes that by California decriminalizing artistic expressions, other states and Congress may follow. New York lawmakers have introduced a bill that goes further than California’s by presuming at the outset that an artist’s creative output is inadmissible unless “clear and convincing” proof can show otherwise. The Restoring Artistic Protection (RAP) Act was introduced this year at the federal level and is all but identical to California’s law. Newsom said California’s entertainment industry makes the state’s legislation a “fitting” example. “Artists of all kinds should be able to create without the fear of unfair and prejudicial prosecution,” he said.


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