Rap on Trial When Creative Expression Becomes Criminal Evidence

Since when is art a crime? If you’re a rapper, your creative work can too often be unfairly used against you. The American Civil Liberties Union notes that rap lyrics are used as evidence all too frequently today in criminal trials. Out of 18 recent cases in which courts faced the question of whether rap lyrics could be used as criminal evidence, 80 percent of the time, the judge allowed it. Even if a song or other creative work depicts actual events, the use of free expression as criminal evidence is a very slippery legal slope, and one that can be racially charged.

In 2012, a New Jersey rapper’s conviction for a 2005 murder was overturned. The only evidence reportedly linking him to the crime was 13 pages of violent rap lyrics he had left lying in his car. The lyrics, while laden with expletives and graphically descriptive of murder, do not mention the victim at all. Prosecutors did not have any physical evidence linking the defendant to the murder other than a cell phone found on the street near the victim. However, there were several other phones found near the area as well. Moreover, the witnesses, according to records, frequently changed their testimonies.

The rapper’s case was appealed and reversed after the appeals board ruled that the use of his lyrics as evidence was “highly prejudicial.” A new trial has been ordered before New Jersey’s highest court. Rap music is a form of artistic expression, and artists have First Amendment rights to free speech. If all rappers’ lyrics were taken at face value as actual testimonies of crimes, many of these artists would be in jail. Rap music often depicts violent acts because, as one ACLU representative commented, rap lyrics are often an outlet for expressing social and political commentary about life in impoverished minority neighborhoods. Frequently, the lyrics are metaphorical or hyperbolic.

This rapper may have grounds to file a personal injury lawsuit against the court for the violation of his First Amendment rights by using his art as evidence against him. He may even be able to add racial discrimination to the claim. Morristown area criminal defense attorneys can help remind the court of their clients’ civil and legal rights, and assure that their free expression is not inappropriately used as criminal evidence. Rap music is meant as entertainment and should be treated accordingly in court.

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