A bill to limit the use of music lyrics as evidence in court cases passed the Assembly for a second time with amendments on Monday, sending the bill to Gov. Gavin Newsom for his signature or veto.
Assembly Bill 2799, authored by Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), would require courts in a criminal trial where a party seeks to admit into evidence some form of “creative expression” to consider factors in weighing the value of the evidence against the potential risk of bias. Courts will also be required to balance the probative value of a creative expression against the substantial risk of unfair prejudice, first considering that the probative value of the creative expression as to its literal truth is minimal unless that expression meets specified conditions .
AB 2799 would require courts to consider whether prejudice will be granted based on whether creative expression can be used as evidence to show a defendant’s propensity for violence or criminal propensity, or whether racial bias would become part of the process.
Essentially, the bills would ask courts how art forms, such as rap music, should and can be used as evidence, with particular pieces of expression, such as music lyrics, to be questioned if they show that a defendant is violent or if the evidence is more racially motivated.
Assemblywoman Jones-Sawyer wrote AB 2799 because rap music and lyrics have been used in courts to be used against suspects, with the evidence allegedly causing racial bias in juries. He also noted that without the bill, musical expression would be restricted as many music writers might be concerned enough to “inhibit” creative expression.
“Under current law, rap artists can feel like they’re being read their Miranda rights before they even start writing music: ‘You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law,” Assemblywoman Jones-Sawyer said Monday. “We should not hinder the creative expression of artists. Unfortunately, racial prejudice plays a role when it comes to musical genres. Rap lyrics have many similarities to those of other genres of music, but have been singled out by the court system to characterize an artist. AB 2799 would prohibit prosecutors from inciting racial prejudice or reinforcing racial stereotypes and gives judges guidelines for using creative expression in court.”
AB 2799 to go to Gov. Newsom to veto, approve
AB 2799 was completely gutted and replaced in June, changing from a jury instruction bill to a bill regarding the use of music lyrics as evidence in court cases. Despite the radical change, both Republicans and Democrats supported the bill, with the Senate passing it 38-0 earlier this month and then 76-0 in the House on Monday.
“The law is popular because it points to a huge problem and because it affects creative expression across the board,” explained Ted Cooper, an attorney who has been involved in cases in four states where lyrics have played a role in legal cases. “Rap music is the main thing here, as the lyrics are often suggestive or violent, with the vast majority of black artists. But there have been times with other genres, especially country, that it affects everyone else as well.”
“For a lot of people, showing the lyrics you’ve written or sung in court really affects how jurors see the person. If they’re singing about violence or something else, like in a shooting case or a domestic abuse case, juries can zero in on that. Plus the juries usually pay more attention to the media when it’s played, as something very different is presented. Five hours of people talking can be monotonous. But music or a video being played or at least quoted is such a gear change. And genre can really sway the jury.”
“That’s why members of both parties are for the bill in California. It’s so much trouble in the courts.”
AB 2799 will then go to Governor Newsom, who he is expected to sign into law within the next week.
If signed into law, California would be the first state in the nation with such a legal policy. It is likely to be second early this year, but because of a delay with a similar bill in New York, California’s may become law first.