California’s state Senate on Thursday passed a bill that would sharply limit when prosecutors can cite rap lyrics as evidence and require judges to weigh whether they’ll “inject racial bias” into a case, setting the stage for imminent enactment of the first-in-the-nation statute.
The legislation, AB 2799, would effectively ban such lyrics from the courtroom unless prosecutors can show that they are directly relevant to the facts of the case and won’t “inject racial bias into the proceedings,” among other hurdles.
After similar legislation failed in New York earlier this year, the California bill would be would be the first of its kind, aimed at a controversial prosecution tactic critics say offers little insight into an actual crime and can unfairly sway juries by playing to racial bias. The issue has taken on new urgency since May, when Young Thug and Gunna, two of rap’s top young talents, were hit with an indictment on gang charges that repeatedly quoted their lyrics.
Following Thursday’s vote – the bill passed the state Senate by an unanimous vote – AB 2799 must return to the state Assembly, which already passed an earlier version in May but must now approve tweaks to the law made by the Senate. If approved by the Assembly as expected, the bill will head to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk by the end of September.
Like New York’s rap lyric bill, AB 2799 would create a so-called presumption against the use of any creative expression as evidence – meaning not an outright ban, but a hurdle for prosecutors to overcome. The law would require courts to hold that such evidence offers “minimal” value unless the state can show that the expression was created near in time to the crime; bears a level of similarity to the crime; or includes “factual details” about the crime are not otherwise publicly available.
But the California law has other provisions not present in the other bills, like an express requirement that judges to consider whether such evidence will “inject racial bias into the proceedings.” It also notably requires that courts consider testimony on the particular genre of expression being cited by prosecutors – a nod to the fact that experts say hip hop’s unique conventions are often weaponized when lyrics are cited in court.
The bill would also require courts to admit testimony about “experimental or social science research” showing that a particular genre “introduces racial bias into the proceedings.” Multiple empirical studies have shown that jurors view hip hop lyrics as more dangerous than those from other genres, even when they cover the exact same words.
A spokesman for the bill’s author, Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, did not immediately return a request for comment on Friday.