Federal prosecutors may introduce rap music videos and an interview depicting an aspiring rapper charged with drug and weapons charges without violating the First Amendment, a federal district court judge has ruled. The court reasoned that the introduction of such materials is not unduly prejudicial and does not violate the defendant’s rights of artistic expression.
In June 2018, Larry Carpenter, also known by his rap persona “Kontraversy”, was arrested in a vehicle selling cocaine and heroin to an undercover law enforcement official. Federal prosecutors charged Carpenter with conspiring to distribute heroin and cocaine, using a firearm in furtherance of the illegal drug sales and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
The government filed a motion in limine, a pre-trial motion often filed to determine the admissibility of evidence in an upcoming trial. The government seeks to introduce various rap music videos and lyrics.
One video, “Young Bonnie,” features Carpenter carrying a firearm and rapping about the drug trade. In another video titled, “Might Not Make It Home,” Carpenter appears to be brandishing a firearm the government claims is the firearm confiscated when he was arrested. A third video, “Tee-Talk Interview,” features the defendant claiming that his music is authentic because he has engaged in the activities he raps about.
Carpenter contended that the rap music videos and lyrics should not be admitted at trial, because any relevance of the materials is outweighed by their prejudicial impact and the introduction of such evidence would violate his First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
Regarding the relevancy claim, U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of New York Arthur D. Spatt wrote in a Feb. 25, 2019 ruling in United States v. Carpenter that the material is relevant and not unduly prejudicial to the defendant. The judge concluded that “the probative value of the evidence is not substantially outweighed by a danger of unfair prejudice.”
Regarding the First Amendment argument, the judge emphasized that the First Amendment does not prohibit the introduction of the evidentiary use of speech to show the elements of a crime or to establish the defendant’s motive.
Carpenter had argued that his lyrics should be protected speech just like Bob Marley’s famous line about shooting the sheriff or Johnny Cash’s killing a man in Reno. The judge was not persuaded, writing: “If Johnny Cash had ever been charged with murdering a man in Reno, the prosecution would have likely been able to introduce Cash’s lyrics as evidence that the murder was premeditated.”
The judge noted that Carpenter can mention at trial that he took creative licenses in his music and that the lyrics constitute hyperbole rather than the commission of actual crimes. But, the judge wrote that such “goes to the weight of the evidence, rather than to admissibility [of the evidence].”
However, the judge did not allow federal prosecutors to introduce all videos and lyrics as a whole. Instead, the judge ruled that the prosecution must submit to the court the specific excerpts of the videos or lyrics that it intends to introduce. The judge also said that Carpenter could object to the admission of specific clips or lyrics and can submit proposed limiting instructions concerning any of the introduced excerpts.
The upcoming trial should be interesting to all those concerned about whether or not rap music is being properly used in criminal trials. Rap music often contains hyperbolic language that does not represent the actual conduct of the rapper.
David L. Hudson Jr., a visiting associate professor of Legal Practice at Belmont University College of Law, is a First Amendment attorney and author who has written, co-written, or co-edited more than 40 books, including “The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech” (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and “Documents Decoded: Freedom of Speech” (ABC-CLIO, 2017).