Can Lyrics Be Used Against You in Court?
October 25, 2022 Don Pumphrey, Jr. Criminal Defense, News & Announcements Social Share
The trial has begun for famous Florida rapper Spinabenz, who has been charged with possession of a firearm as a convicted felon. The prosecution is attempting to use the rapper’s own lyrics against him, claiming they match the alleged crimes committed.
We will cover the details of the case, along with information on possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and gang-related crimes.
What is the Case?
Noah Williams, 24, is the defendant in a high-profile gun possession case. Williams is also known as the Jacksonville rapper Spinabenz, who is featured on the popular rap song “Who I Smoke”—a version of rap called “drill rap” in which alleged gang members rap about killing rival gang members.
Williams was convicted in 2017 for witness tampering after he threatened the victim in his brother’s (rapper Whoppa Wit Da Choppa) sexual battery case. Williams allegedly told the victim that she would be “terrorized” until his brother got released from prison.
In 2021, Williams was arrested for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and police-certified gang member. As Williams’ trial began this week, he is facing up to 15 years in prison. If convicted, a separate sentencing will take place to decide whether to enhance the charges due to his gang affiliation.
Only a week before the trial began, Williams was arrested again. Williams was charged with criminal mischief and tampering with an electronic monitoring device after he tried to remove his house arrest ankle monitor. Williams’ bond was placed at $450,000.
Despite the defense attorney requesting to keep Williams’ songs out of the evidence, Judge Jeb Branhem allowed the prosecution to play the song “My Glock” for the jury. Prosecutors claimed that the lyrics match the 2021 crime. One line of lyrics states, “I spent 300 on my Glock” which the prosecution says matches to his girlfriend buying him a $300 Glock.
David Bigney, Williams’ attorney, had several arguments against pinning the lyrics to his client’s crime. For one, Bigney said the number 300 could have just been a lyrical device to the song. He also argued that while the song mentions a gun and ammunition, it also mentions an airplane and other things that have nothing to do with the criminal case.
“Do you know when the lyrics for this song were written?” Bigney asked. When the prosecutor guessed 2021, Bigney responded, “It’s important that you don’t guess.” He went on to explain that songs take an extensive amount of time during writing, recording, editing, producing, and distributing before they are released.
Defense’s Request for Acquittal
On Tuesday afternoon the defense requested an acquittal from Judge Branhem, claiming there was a lack of evidence against his client. The prosecution case rests on the notion that William had his girlfriend purchase the firearm for him.
Williams’ girlfriend was driving him when they were pulled over in a traffic stop. The officer confiscated the Glock after finding it in the vehicle. Although the girlfriend is registered as the owner of the Glock, Williams’ DNA prints were found on it which led the prosecution to believe it is his gun.
“No witness has seen my client with a firearm,” Bigney argued. He also promised the jury that there would be no witnesses able to testify that they saw Williams with the Glock, which so far has been true.
The request for an acquittal was denied by Judge Branhem.
Possession of a Firearm by a Convicted Felon in Florida
When a person has already been convicted of a crime, they lose certain rights. If anyone has been convicted of a felony-level offense in Florida, they are no longer eligible to obtain or possess a firearm or ammunition.
Florida Statute section 790.23 describes the unlawful possession of a firearm, which explains that any juvenile delinquent or felon is prohibited from possessing a firearm, ammunition, or an electric weapon device.
The possession can be considered actual or constructive. Actual possession is when the weapon or illegal device is found on the defendant’s person, such as in their pocket. Constructive possession is when the firearm or illegal weapon was placed in a spot that the defendant had control over, such as in the glove department of a vehicle.
It is important to note that this law does not apply to a person who was previously convicted of a crime but has had their civil rights restored. Having your rights restored would allow for the legal possession of a firearm. To find out more about the unlawful possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, read our page here.
Gang-Related Offenses in Florida
Florida Statute section 874.03 defines a “criminal gang” as a formal or informal ongoing organization, association, or group that has as one of its primary activities the commission of criminal or delinquent acts, and that consists of three or more persons who have a common name or common identifying signs, colors, or symbols—including but not limited to, terrorist organizations and hate groups.
“Criminal gang-related activity” is referred to as acts committed with the intent to benefit, promote, or further the interests of a criminal gang, or for the purpose of increasing a person’s own standing or position within a criminal gang.
The penalties for gang-related offenses are described under Florida Statute section 874.04. The law states that if the defendant has committed the charged offense for the purpose of benefiting, promoting, or furthering the interests of a criminal gang, the penalty for any felony or misdemeanor would be enhanced.
The enhancement would be as follows:
- A second-degree misdemeanor would be enhanced to a first-degree misdemeanor.
- A first-degree misdemeanor would be enhanced to a third-degree felony.
- A third-degree felony would be enhanced to a second-degree felony.
- A second-degree felony would be enhanced to a first-degree felony.
- A first-degree felony would be enhanced to a life felony.
Can Song lyrics even be used as evidence?
So long as the evidence is relevant, the prosecution has broad discretion on the type and manner of evidence that they introduce during their case-in-chief. However, even if the evidence is relevant to the case, all evidence they try to introduce must survive what is known as a balancing test. This test looks to exclude relevant evidence whose probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of one or more of the following issues:
- Unfairly Prejudicing the defendant,
- Confusing the Issues,
- Misleading the Jury,
- Causing Undue Delay or Wasting Time, or
- Needlessly presenting cumulative evidence.
To keep it simple, the court must decide not only if the evidence is relevant to the case but must also balance the evidence’s relevance to one or all of the above issues.
In U.S. v. Stephenson, the Middle District of Florida dealt with a similar case. In this case, the rapper known as BOC Fredo, whose legal name is Paul Stephenson, was charged with knowingly and intentionally possessing with intent to distribute a controlled substance, and knowingly possessing a firearm that was found on the floor of his vehicle, He had previously released three music videos on YouTube where he rapped about his drug activities and the prosecution intended to introduce them as evidence.
The court found that these available rap videos qualified as non-hearsay statements made by a party opponent that were being offered to prove various elements of the charged offense. The court found that because the music videos were being offered by the Prosecution against the opposing party while being made by that party in an individual or representative capacity they could be admitted into evidence.
However, the court still had to deal with just how relevant the statements were to the case-in-chief. Because it was also unknown when the videos were produced, even if they talked about the defendant’s activities and have probative value, the court found that the prejudice of the videos greatly outweighed any probative value from them.
Ultimately, each case has specific facts that need to be analyzed on a case-by-case basis. Having a skilled Defense attorney can greatly weigh in on understanding what evidence if any can the prosecution bring in against you.
Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida
Possession of a firearm can already have serious consequences if not legally owned. For a convicted felon, the penalties are even more severe for getting caught with a firearm or other weapon device. If you or a loved one have been charged with a crime, don’t leave it up to chance. Reach out to a skilled defense attorney and protect your future. Don Pumphrey and his team at Pumphrey Law Firm have experience representing clients across the state for various charges. Contact us today for a free consultation at (850) 681-7777 or leave us an online message on our website.
Written by Karissa Key