This blog is the second in a new series by criminal defense attorney Harry Rutherford which explores the intersection of law and hip-hop in the column we call "99 Problems But the Law Ain't One."
Daniel Hernandez, better known by his stage name Tekashi 6ix9ine, has been a polarizing figure since he first emerged onto the rap scene—the CEO of Tekashi’s label has called him the Donald Trump of the music industry. Seeming to have found the formula to success in this social media era, Tekashi was catapulted into the limelight with a string of headline-grabbing antics.
Everything was calculated, from his physical appearance to his supposed gang affiliation, to increase his notoriety and propel himself to the top of the music charts. His debut single, “Gummo,” reached number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100, its success driven in part by the music video full of gang members that helped form the image Tekashi began perpetuating. From that point up until his eventual arrest, every single that Tekashi released landed on the Billboard Hot 100. His controversy-fueled formula for success was working, until he flew too close to the sun and melted his rainbow-colored wings. This focus on generating controversy that brought him such rapid success ultimately became his undoing.
One benefit of Tekashi’s strategy was that, by using controversy as the currency of his trade, negative stories that may have jeopardized the careers of other up-and-comers were just drops in the bucket for him. In 2015, when he was just beginning his career as a rapper, Tekashi was arrested for a sex crime involving a 13-year-old girl. Tekashi posted a video on Instagram of the girl performing sexual acts on another man while Tekashi was next to them making thrusting motions and smacking the girl on the buttocks. Another clip showed the girl lying naked across both of their laps.
Facing a potential sentence of three years in prison, Tekashi pled guilty to the felony of use of a child in a sexual performance in exchange for a rather favorable sentence. He was put on a year of probation, required to complete 300 hours of community service, undergo two years of mental health treatment, obtain his GED, and stay out of trouble until the date of his sentencing hearing. If he complied with all these terms, he would not only avoid further jail time, but would not be required to register as a sex offender. Other artists, especially those so fresh to the industry, would likely find their careers derailed by something so heinous. For Tekashi, though, this event largely faded into the sea of conflicts and controversy on which he began to thrive.
The terms of Tekashi’s plea deal required him to stay out of trouble until his sentencing hearing, but starting trouble was Tekashi’s business model. In the time between entering his plea and his sentencing hearing, Tekashi was linked to a slew of criminal activity—some directly, through law enforcement accusations, and others indirectly, through tabloid and social media rumors. In building his brand and garnering notoriety, Tekashi instigated beefs (feuds) with various rappers through social media, including Trippie Redd, Chief Keef, and Casanova.
In November 2017, Trippie Redd was attacked outside his hotel in Manhattan. Many speculated that Tekashi, with whom Trippie had recently begun beefing, was somehow involved, but no arrests were made. Then in April 2018, Tekashi’s entourage encountered Casanova and his entourage outside the Barclays Center during a boxing match. The altercation led to a gun being fired, but nobody was hit. Although the officers arrested someone for the shooting, Fuguan Lovick, they could not link Lovick to Tekashi’s camp. Later that year in June, another one of Tekashi’s rap rivals, Chief Keef, was shot at outside a Times Square hotel. Although there was nothing directly linking the shooting to Tekashi, there was once again heavy speculation that Tekashi was somehow involved.
When you ruffle as many feathers as Tekashi 6ix9ine, trouble is bound to find you even when you don’t go looking for it. In November 2017, shots were fired by an unknown assailant at the set of a music video Tekashi was filming with fellow rappers Nicki Minaj and Kanye West. In February 2018, Tekashi was involved in an altercation outside the venue of one of his shows that ended in gunfire. Later that same month, a confrontation with an unknown man at LAX airport led to a fistfight involving Tekashi and his entourage.
Despite the constant chaos that surrounded Tekashi, none of these incidents led to any criminal charges against him. In May 2018, however, Tekashi allegedly choked a sixteen-year-old who took his picture, and was eventually arrested for the incident. That same month, a police officer was taking Tekashi to the precinct to issue a ticket for driving with a suspended license when Tekashi allegedly grabbed the officer, leading to a charge of assault on a police officer.
By the time Tekashi was finally in court for his sentencing hearing on the child sex charge—on October 26, 2018—he had run up quite the tab of problematic incidents to explain to the court. The prosecutors claimed that the string of incidents detailed above violated the terms of his 2015 plea. Tekashi’s attorneys countered, however, that the plea said he was to stay out of trouble until his sentencing hearing, which was originally scheduled for October 2017 (the hearing was postponed a total of 19 times, mostly because Tekashi had yet to attain his GED). The first incident after the plea, the attack on Trippie Redd, occurred in November 2017. Therefore, the two-year period during which he was supposed to keep his nose clean had expired, his lawyers argued.
The judge wasn’t persuaded by this argument, explaining that he “technically” violated some plea agreement conditions. Nonetheless, Judge Mennin said that she did not feel bound to the agreement because it was drafted by her predecessor, and showed Tekashi mercy. She noted his “unsolicited acts of generosity” as well as his genuine remorse, and sentenced him to four more years of probation with credit for one year served.
Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, Tekashi did not capitalize on this second chance and stay out of trouble. In fact, that very night, an altercation at Tekashi’s celebration dinner ended in gunfire. Three weeks later, Tekashi announced that he was firing his entire management team. At the time he said it was due to financial mismanagement, but his attorney later commented that after Judge Mennin gave him a second chance, he wanted a fresh start. It wouldn’t be that simple, however, because his management team largely consisted of members of the Nine Trey Bloods gang. As Tekashi would soon learn, cutting ties with violent gang members who have been extorting you is considerably more difficult than just firing your management team.
Within days of the announcement, the FBI approached Tekashi. They had been investigating the Nine Trey Bloods and had wiretaps on his former crew. They told him that they had heard the gang members discussing a potential attempt on his life and offered him protection. He declined.
Just a few days later, the FBI issued an eight-count federal indictment against Tekashi and five other alleged members of the Nine Trey Bloods. It turns out that the ATF, Department of Homeland Security, and NYPD had been building a RICO case against this subset of the gang for months. The indictment charged racketeering (RICO) conspiracy, several firearm offenses as part of the RICO conspiracy, and several violent crimes in aid of the racketeering enterprise. The indictment also alleged that members of the Nine Trey Bloods sold a range of drugs, including heroin and fentanyl, and engaged in various acts of violence to protect their drug trade and assert their dominance as an organization.
To fully understand the serious charges Tekashi and the other defendants face, it’s helpful to understand the origins of RICO and what it means. A RICO charge is a case under the Racketeering Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act, a law passed in the 1970s to help prosecute mafia families. RICO added two new powerful weapons to a prosecutor’s tool belt. The first is that, if crimes constitute “a pattern of racketeering activity,” then in addition to those “predicate” charges, the prosecutor can add a RICO charge for committing those predicate racketeering charges to further a criminal enterprise. The other, even bigger benefit for prosecutors is that the wording of the RICO statute does not require the individual to actually commit the predicate offenses themselves. This means that just by being a part of the enterprise that is committing racketeering offenses, and benefitting from it, you can be charged under RICO.
This has allowed prosecutors to go after the heads of criminal organizations who had previously been insulated from the crimes themselves. Before RICO, the prosecution would have to try and reach the heads of criminal syndicates through conspiracy charges. This could be difficult, because conspiracy requires some sort of proof of an agreement to engage in criminal activity, which most crime bosses avoid by having third parties act as buffers giving their orders. For a RICO charge, on the other hand, the prosecution essentially only needs to prove that the boss was a member of the criminal enterprise committing these racketeering offenses.
This is particularly problematic for Tekashi because there was almost no direct evidence linking him to any of these racketeering offenses. There’s no evidence he ever fired a gun, assaulted anyone, or sold any drugs. But since there was enough evidence to link him to the enterprise, they were able to charge him under RICO. Two of the charges he’s facing carry a maximum sentence of life in prison. If he were convicted on all of the charges, the minimum sentence he could receive is 47 years in prison. The unfortunate part is that, as more evidence has emerged, it’s become abundantly clear that Tekashi was never truly a member of the gang. He was merely using the gang to perpetuate the image that furthered his career in exchange for a cut of the profits from his music.
Faced with the potential of life in prison, Tekashi committed the cardinal sin of the rap industry: he snitched. He pled guilty to the charges and made a deal with the government, hoping for leniency. He recently spent three whole days testifying as the prosecution’s star witness against Aljermiah Mack and Anthony Ellison, who are allegedly high-ranking members of the Nine Trey Bloods. He not only offered evidence of crimes committed by the two defendants, but also provided a rare look into the inner workings of the gang, ranging from their hierarchy and practices to their signature handshake. In exchange for his testimony, prosecutors have promised to request a reduced sentence. Tekashi has indicated that he believes he will be released by early 2020, but it’s yet to be seen quite how much leniency his cooperation will buy him.
Once he is released, he still has a long, uncertain road ahead of him. Detailing the inner workings of the organization in federal court surely won’t sit well with the Nine Trey Bloods, and wiretaps showed they had already been planning an attack on Tekashi even before he testified. Although the government will likely offer him witness protection, many have wondered how he would be able to stay anonymous with his distinct appearance, specifically his face full of tattoos. A professional tattoo remover has opined that it would take at least a year and cost around $100,000 for Tekashi to have all his tattoos removed, and he would be left with very visible scarring for quite a while. Perhaps because of these concerns, the most recent reports have indicated that Tekashi has no interest in witness protection, and would rather hire constant security and attempt to continue living a life of fame as a rapper. Whether he’ll be able to continue a successful rap career after committing the cardinal sin of the industry is questionable, however.
Although Tekashi’s future is full of uncertainty, his past is now clear. He is not, nor was he ever, a gangster. He’s a kid from Brooklyn who wanted to be there and provide for his son, like his father never did for him. He couldn’t do this with his minimum wage job at a deli, and having never attended a day of high school, his economic prospects were limited. So he decided to become a rapper, and is savvy enough that he discovered a formula to success. Unfortunately for Tekashi, this formula drew him into a criminal underworld from which he soon realized there was no escape. Whether he’ll be able to come out unscathed, and ever be able to simply live a life as Daniel Hernandez and be a father to his son, is the biggest uncertainty facing Tekashi 6ix9ine.
Epilogue by Criminal Trial Lawyer Aaron Delgado:
Even without a rainbow grill and an array of facial tattoos, some of our clients can relate to finding themselves in situations that have spiraled wildly out of control. Many clients are tempted to "snitch" in exchange for a more lenient resolution. However, despite what Tekashi's story may appear to be and what you see in fiction, working with the police is usually far less dramatic. It is also very pervasive. Substantial Assistance, as "snitching" is referred to in the legal system, is one of the only ways for an arrestee to avoid substantial prison time under Florida’s mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.
Florida Law provides that the State Attorney can agree to a "downward departure" based on a defendant's work in helping with other arrests. Once an arrestee begins working for the government they become a "confidential informant"—their identity is somewhat protected, although it can be revealed in discovery with the proper Motion. This means an informant's identity will become known eventually, particularly if the case goes to trial. Despite what the police may claim, being an informant is far from safe and easy. If you are considering working with the government, you also need to know the police have very limited authority to "make deals" that are binding!
The decision to cooperate with the Government is one of the most gut-wrenching choices you can face. Fortunately, the experienced Drug Defense Team at Delgado & Romanik, PLLC., can help you understand the risks and rewards of cooperating with the government, and decide if that is really the only option you have. Call us today at 386-222-6677 to schedule a free consultation with a drug defense lawyer.