USA: Hip-hop artist prosecuted for rapping about shootings

4 February 2015


The rapper Tiny Doo was charged with “criminal street gang conspiracy” over a music album, ‘No Safety’, reflecting gang culture.

Tiny Doo (real name: Brandon Duncan) has no criminal record and says he has no knowledge of the crimes, which involved several shootings in San Diego from May 2013 to February 2014. But the district attorney charged him all the same because he raps about shootings.

After eight months in prison, Brandon Duncan is now free on bail, but he still faces ‘gang conspiracy’ charges, which threaten a potential life sentence.

The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU, has filed a brief asking the court to dismiss the charges immediately.


“That’s not only absurd; it’s a blatant violation of the First Amendment.”
David Loy, ACLU


“A young man has been threatened with life in prison for speaking his truth about the world.”
Geoffrey King in The Guardian


“I’m just painting a picture of urban street life. The studio’s my canvas …. I’m not telling anyone to go out and kill somebody or go do something. I’m not doing anything differently than [Grammy-winning rapper] The Game.”
Tiny Doo in an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon


Ordinarily, to be guilty of conspiracy in California, an individual must agree with another person to commit a crime, then at least one of them must take action to further that conspiracy. The charge Duncan faces requires no such agreement: so long as prosecutors can show that Duncan is an active member of the gang and knows about its general criminal activity, past or present, he can be convicted for benefiting from its acts.

“This kind of legislation is often born of moral panic, and can lead to ill-advised prosecutions. But the manner in which it is being applied to Duncan should disturb all who care about free expression,” wrote Geoffrey King in The Guardian in December 2014.

“While Duncan’s prosecution is perhaps uniquely shocking in its brazenness, he is but one of many notable rappers whose lyrics have been used against them in court.”

Geoffrey King mentions rappers Mac Dre, 2 Live Crew, Ra Diggs, and Laz tha Boy are examples. He also notes that there does appear to have been some pushback from courts. For example, the New Jersey supreme court held in August 2014 that rap lyrics cannot be used as evidence of motive and intent “except when such material has a direct connection to the specifics of the offense” for which it is offered, on the grounds that the prejudicial impact of “inflammatory” art risks “poisoning” juries against defendants.

“In criminal cases the process itself is often the punishment, even without a conviction. Mr. Duncan spent eight months in jail when he never should have been arrested in the first place. The court should stop this case in its tracks and send a clear message that prosecution for protected speech cannot be tolerated.”
David Loy, ACLU

» ACLU – 3 February 2015:
This Man Faces Life in Prison for…Rapping

» The Guardian – 4 December 2014:
Meet Tiny Doo, the rapper facing life in prison for making an album

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