Bill to restrict music lyrics used as evidence at meeting

A bill to restrict the use of music lyrics as evidence in court cases passed the Assembly for the second time with amendments on Monday, sending the bill to Governor Gavin Newsom for his signature or his veto.

Assembly Bill 2799, drafted by Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), would compel the courts in a criminal proceeding where a party seeks to admit as evidence a form of “expression creative”, to consider the factors to weigh the value of the evidence against the potential danger of harm. Courts would also be required to balance the probative value of a creative expression against the substantial danger of undue harm by first considering that the probative value of the creative expression for its literal truth is minimal unless that expression meet specific conditions.

AB 2799 would then ask courts to consider whether prejudice will be awarded based on whether the creative expression could be used as evidence to show a defendant’s propensity for violence or criminal disposition, or whether racial bias would be part of the process.

Essentially, the bills would ask courts how art forms, such as rap music, should and could be used as evidence, with specific parts of expression, such as musical lyrics, being questioned if they show that an accused is violent or if the evidence is more racially motivated.

Assemblyman Jones-Sawyer wrote AB 2799 because the rap music and lyrics were used in court to be used against suspects, with evidence believed to trigger racial bias in jurors. He also noted that without the bill, musical expression would be limited as many music writers might be concerned enough to “hinder” creative expression.

“Under current law, rap artists may 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 court,” MP Jones-Sawyer said Monday. “We must not hinder the creative expression of artists. Unfortunately, racial bias plays a role when it comes to musical genres. The lyrics of rap music share many similarities with those of other musical categories, but are singled out by the legal system to characterize an artist. AB 2799 would prohibit prosecutors from triggering racial bias or reinforcing racial stereotypes and it gives judges guidance on using creative expression in court.

AB 2799 to go to Governor Newsom for veto, approval

AB 2799 was completely gutted and replaced in June, moving from a jury instruction bill to a bill regarding the use of musical lyrics as evidence in court cases. Despite the sweeping change, Republicans and Democrats backed the bill, with the Senate passing it 38-0 earlier this month and then 76-0 in the House on Monday.

“The bill is popular because it shows a major problem and because it affects creative expression at every level,” said Ted Cooper, an attorney who has been involved in cases in 4 states where the lyrics musicals have played a role in court cases. “Rap music is the main thing here, as the lyrics are often suggestive or violent, with the vast majority of artists being black. But there have been cases with other genres, especially country, that affect everyone equally.

“For a lot of people, having music lyrics you wrote or sung appear in court really affects how jurors see the person. If they’re singing about violence or something, like in, say, a shooting case or a domestic violence case, juries can focus on that. Also, juries usually pay more attention to the media when it’s aired because it’s such a different thing being presented. Five hours of conversation can be monotonous. But music or a video being played or at least quoted is such a shift. And gender can really influence juries.

“That’s why members of both parties are for the bill in California. It’s such a problem in the courts.

AB 2799 will then go to Governor Newsom, which he is expected to sign into law by next week.

If enacted, California will be the first state in the country to have such a legal policy. It was likely going to be second earlier this year, but due to a delay with a similar bill in New York, California could become law first.

About Jessica J. Bass

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