We have previously discussed bizarre cases of self-incrimination from tattoos to rap lyrics. A federal case out of California is based on another rap-song-to-rap-sheet scenario. Fontrell Antonio Baines, 31, of Memphis, Tenn. (aka “Nuke Bizzle”) cut a music video posted on YouTube that bragged about getting rich from an unemployment scam. What is interesting is that, while he allegedly defrauded California Employment Development Department (EDD) and sang about his “my swagger for EDD,” he was actually charged in the federal system with fraudulently applying for more than $1.2 million in jobless benefits.
The reason for the federal charge appears to be the incorporation of EDD payments under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) and specifically the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) provision. This provision expands access to unemployment benefits to self-employed workers, independent contractors, and others who would not otherwise be eligible for relief. Baines is accused of using various debit cards pre-loaded with unemployment benefits administered by the California Employment Development Department (EDD) in the names of third-parties, including identity theft victims.
The scope of the alleged scheme is the other extraordinary aspect of the case. He is accused of using at least 92 debit cards with more than $1.2 million in fraudulently obtained benefits that were mailed to various addresses. (He was arrested with eight debit cards, seven of which were in the names of other persons). More than $704,000 of these benefits were then utilized through cash withdrawals, including in Las Vegas.
Baines proceeded to turn his alleged criminal scheme into a song on YouTube where he boasted of doing “my swagger for EDD” and, holding up a stack of envelopes from EDD, getting rich by “go[ing] to the bank with a stack of these.” He even appears to chide those who commit crime the old fashioned way: “You gotta sell cocaine, I just file a claim….”
He is now charged with felonies for access device fraud, aggravated identity theft, and interstate transportation of stolen property. That could result in 22 years in prison.
As a criminal defense attorney, this is the type of case that you particularly dread because the video is likely to be admitted to any trial. It is hard to develop juror sympathy with this type of video embedded in their brains. You can certainly move to exclude but the court is likely to find the video material, particularly if it was used to identity the defendant. It also includes images of the means of the alleged crime. Rule 403 states that “The court may exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of one or more of the following: unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence.”
Here is the music video but I encourage you to watch it purely for its entertainment rather than instructional value: