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Rap Artist Is Jailed Over Anti-Police Lyrics

Media: State says Sacramento performer violated parole conditions with new album. Experts on 1st Amendment call the action 'outrageous.'

March 04, 1998|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In what is believed to be an unprecedented legal action, a Sacramento rapper was jailed Tuesday because of violent, anti-police lyrics in an album that is due to be released next week.

Gangsta rapper Shawn Thomas, who performs under the name C-BO, was arrested on charges that the new album, "Til My Casket Drops," violates parole conditions that he had agreed to last year requiring him not to record lyrics that "promote the gang lifestyle [or are] anti-law enforcement."

Despite the prohibition by state parole officials, the album--to be released by a small Sacramento record label--is full of graphic, weapons-loaded accounts of gang adventures and often presents a highly negative view of law enforcement and the judicial system.

Tip Kindel, spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said Thomas agreed to his parole conditions--including the gangsta rap ban--before his release from Soledad State Prison in July.

In an interview with The Times on Feb. 19, Thomas said he signed the agreement because he felt that it would be overturned on appeal.

"I don't see how they can take my freedom of speech," the rapper said. "If I lived that lifestyle, that would be something [that could be a problem]. But I don't live that lifestyle anymore."

The rapper was paroled after serving 15 months on a conviction for illegal use of a firearm stemming from a 1996 incident in which a weapon discharged by him during a confrontation with rival gang members resulted in the death of one man.

Thomas' lawyers said they were surprised by his arrest because they had been led to believe by parole authorities that he would not be incarcerated before a hearing on whether the album's content violated the parole conditions. He plans to appeal the arrest to the state Board of Prison Terms.

In one song, Thomas suggests that a Sacramento County Sheriff's Department spokesman be shot and in another lashes out at Gov. Pete Wilson for his support of the three-strikes law.

Thomas raps in "Deadly Game": "You better swing, batter, batter swing/'Cause once you get your third felony,/Yeah, 50 years you gotta bring/It's a deadly game of baseball/So when they try to pull you over, shoot 'em in the face, ya'll."

Kindel said Tuesday that Thomas was arrested on charges of three violations of his parole conditions directly pertaining to his lyrics: promoting gang lifestyle and criminal behavior against law enforcement, promoting violence against public officials, and threatening public officials.

He also was cited on two other charges: traveling more than 50 miles from Sacramento without prior permission (allegedly for recording sessions in San Francisco) and failure to follow a parole agent's instructions, stemming from his not submitting contracts and lyrics relating to the making of the album.

However, "the decision to arrest him basically came after the lyrics were reviewed in the context of the severity of their threats," Kindel said, after parole officials obtained an advance copy of the album. "Initially, the promoting violence and threatening public officials elements had not been contemplated, but after hearing [the lyrics], they were added."

Thomas' attorneys say they will file legal action in Superior Court to challenge the arrest and have him released. Before Tuesday's arrest, they had filed three unsuccessful appeals to parole officials requesting that the conditions concerning his lyrics be removed.

Doug Mirell, a Los Angeles-based attorney specializing in 1st Amendment media law issues, criticized the Sacramento action as "outrageous."

"I haven't heard of anything like this," he said. "And the extent of my knowledge includes what I've read on [Internet] forums discussing this issue with others involved in rap and censorship cases. And if they haven't heard of something like this, it probably hasn't happened. But not only is it unprecedented, it's outrageous.

"The thing that's most abhorrent and renders it most susceptible to being held an improper use of parole conditions is it's content-based. And if there's one thing that all the members of the Supreme Court agree about is that content-based matters are what the 1st Amendment most clearly and unequivocally protects. And I can't imagine a clearer case of someone being punished for the content of his speech."

Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer Harland W. Braun agreed.

"It's really frightening for law enforcement to be able to put you in jail on the basis of the content of your speech. It's a clear 1st Amendment violation."

Santa Monica defense lawyer Rowan K. Klein, an expert on parole conditions, said, "I think what the parole people are doing is illegal and unconstitutional. But the attorney [for Thomas] should have tried to resolve this before it came to this point."

Thomas' attorneys said that in addition to Superior Court action, they will pursue the standard procedure of appealing to the Board of Prison Terms. Meanwhile, Thomas could be held for up to 45 days before a hearing takes place on due process.

"We are surprised by the level of insensitivity to the issues involved," said John Duree, an attorney for Thomas. "I am fearful of [the board] because they, like other parole boards, have had to be curtailed in the past for not caring about the 1st Amendment, so we're likely to go to court with this one."

Thomas' album will be released by Sacramento-based Awol Records, which is distributed by the national Noo Trybe company.

The rapper, who is married with a child and another on the way, says that he has earned an average of $84,000 a year from rapping since he made his first record in 1992.

Times staff writer Henry Weinstein contributed to this story.

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