A Man Faces Life in Prison for … Rapping

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UPDATE!

March 16, 2015
A judge dismissed all charges against San Diego rapper and another man who were accused under a conspiracy law under which District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis’s office prosecuted people identified as gang members if they promote, further, assist in a crime and “knowingly benefit” from the crime.

Judge Louis Hanoian dismissed all charges against Brandon Duncan and Aaron Harvey, but ruled that several other defendants must stand trial.  Judge Hanoian said the defendants couldn’t face a conspiracy charge without having a specific crime attached to the conspiracy.

Prosecutors had charged 33 young men with a series of shootings that took place between May 2013 and February 2014.

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February 3, 2015
San Diego prosecutors admit that Brandon Duncan was not at the scene of any one of several shootings in the city, and they have no evidence linking him to those shootings that occurred between May 2013 and February 2014. Still, the District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis charged him for those crimes because…he rapped about them.

Only recently released on bail, Duncan, who performs under the name Tiny Doo, spent eight months in jail on so-called “gang conspiracy charges” arising from those shootings. The San Diego ACLU is filing an amicus brief in court this morning asking the court to dismiss the charges immediately. In a blog post about the case, David Loy, legal director of the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties said that the case was “not only absurd; it is a blatant violation of the First Amendment.”

The district attorney is testing a law in which an “active participant” in a “criminal street gang” who “willfully promotes, furthers, assists, or benefits from” any felony committed by fellow gang members can be charged with “conspiracy to commit that felony.” Unlike traditional conspiracy, the charge does not require any agreement to commit the crime. Instead, it requires either “promoting, furthering, or assisting” the crime, which means being a direct accomplice, and knowingly “benefiting” from the crime.

“Whether or not this law can be used to prosecute others, the prosecution is abusing it to charge Duncan,” Loy said. “To ‘promote, further, or assist’ means to aid and abet, and there is no evidence he did that.” Instead, the prosecution is unconstitutionally twisting the word “benefit” to charge Duncan. The district attorney alleges that he  “benefited” by making a CD called “No Safety,” on which he raps about shootings, and by receiving “praise” for his music. As the prosecutor admitted, he wouldn’t be charged if he sang “love songs.” That’s a classic First Amendment violation.

“This is a textbook case of using a ‘gang’ dragnet to over-criminalize people of color,” Loy said. Beyond that, even if prosecutors could prove that Duncan is an “active participant” in the gang under California law, the prosecution’s theory violates the First Amendment by punishing him for the content of his speech. The government can punish crime, but it cannot punish speech about crime, even by proven criminals about their own crimes, much less an artist like Tiny Doo.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the government can’t confiscate income from speech based on its content, even speech about crime, because that would punish the speech itself. Under that principle, the government cannot prosecute Duncan for singing about crime or allegedly receiving “benefits” for doing so. Indeed, this case is even worse, because it involves criminal prosecution, not just loss of income.

On the district attorney’s theory, it could prosecute a current or former gang member for writing a book, giving an interview to an author, or appearing in a documentary about gang life, as well as a substance abuse counselor who draws on his gang experiences, because they all “benefit” from knowledge of crimes committed by gang members.

The government cannot criminalize free speech, and it cannot criminalize Duncan’s music. Duncan is now free on bail, but he still faces “gang conspiracy” charges, which threaten a potential life sentence. The ACLU brief calls on the court to dismiss the charges immediately. “The court should stop this case in its tracks and send a clear message that prosecution for protected speech cannot be tolerated,” Loy wrote in his blog post.