Effective September 30, 2022, prosecutors will be limited in their ability to use rap lyrics against criminal defendants to show a propensity for violence or for committing crimes or as character evidence. The California “Decriminalizing Artistic Expression Act,” AB 2799, amends evidence rules in criminal proceedings and gives judges direction on how to determine whether the “probative value” (whether the evidence establishes a fact relevant to the crime charged) of using artistic expression against the defendant outweighs the risk of prejudice and bias that can arise from the use of artistic expression, such as rap music, to prove that a person is guilty of a crime.
Although the Act is not limited to rap music, the motivation for passing the act was the increasing use of rap lyrics against defendant of color, which endorses stereotypes and increases the risk of juror bias against them.
Use of artistic expression against a defendant is not entirely prohibited, but its introduction is limited. A judge, in determining whether the probative value of the evidence outweighs the “substantial danger of undue prejudice,” must first recognize that the probative value of creative expression for its truth is minimal unless that expression meets specified conditions. While this does not create a presumption that the expression cannot be used, it is significant that the court must start its analysis with the fact that the value of using expression for “literal” truth is minimal.
The court is also required to consider the danger of bias against a defendant and must hear testimony (if offered) on the genre of creative expression, including the context of such expression, and on research demonstrating that the introduction of a particular type of expression introduces bias into the proceedings. Such testimony must be presented outside the presence of a jury to avoid potential prejudice.
Artistic expression may, however, sometimes be used as evidence of a defendant’s guilt, but only when the expression was “created near in time to the charged crime or crimes, bears a sufficient level of similarity to the charged crime or crimes, or includes factual detail not otherwise publicly available.”
AB 2799 is a victory for criminal defendants, especially rap musicians, in that it expressly limits the use of artistic expression to demonstrate the bad character of the defendant or to show that he or she has a propensity to commit violence or engage in crimes. Eliminating bias and stereotyping is crucial to a fair trial, and defendants have one more protection against the introduction of evidence against them that is unrelated to the underlying facts of the crime.