A Legal Analysis Of Jay-Z's "99 Problems"

Jay-Z's seminal rap hit "99 Problems" was largely a list of personal gripes with an arresting hook, but a small vignette in the second verse focuses on a traffic stop between the song's hero and the police.

Or, as Southwestern Law Professor Caleb Mason explains, "In one compact, teachable verse (Verse 2), the song forces us to think about traffic stops, vehicle searches, drug smuggling, probable cause, and racial profiling, and it beautifully tees up my favorite pedagogical heuristic: life lessons for cops and robbers."

All that from one verse! Jay-Z, it seems, is smarter than your average criminal, but he makes one big miscalculation.

Here are the highlights from the analysis (PDF), titled "JAY-Z'S 99 PROBLEMS, VERSE 2: A CLOSE READING WITH FOURTH AMENDMENT GUIDANCE FOR COPS AND PERPS."

After discussing the fourth amendment implications of illegal search and seizure (4th amendment), Mason turns to Jay-Z's claim that he's smarter not to bounce but to stay and fight the case:

I got a few dollars I can fight the case . . . Staying cool is easier to do, of course, if you have a few dollars to hire a good attorney. If you're going to get an overworked public defender or a bottom-feeding court lurker who'll just try to get you to take a quick plea, then bouncing on the double starts to look more attractive, even given the considerations discussed above. Jay-Z had money, he could get a good lawyer, he made the right choice.

Jay-Z also benefits from not having to face off with a K-9 dog, who might otherwise be able to create probable cause by smelling contraband. He goes on to inquire as to whether he was stopped because of his color, but it has no validity on his claim based on Supreme Court rulings. However, saying "I don't know" is especially smart.

Smart response for two reasons. First, it allows you to make a record of the officer's asserted basis for the stop. Second, it doesn't admit any misconduct. There's no need whatsoever to blurt out, "Sorry, officer, I know I was speeding!"

The same goes for asking "Am I under arrest…?" because if you're not under arrest you can suppress any contraband if you show "there was no probable cause for the search."

Sadly, Jay-Z can be pulled over for driving "fifty-five in a fifty-four" as he mentions in the song.

Where Jay-Z gets it wrong is in asserting that "I ain't stepping out of shit" when asked to get out of the car.

Does a driver actually have the right to refuse an order to exit the vehicle during an ordinary traffic stop? Unfortunately for drivers, the answer here is an unequivocal "no," straight from the Supreme Court: "[O]nce a motor vehicle has been lawfully detained for a traffic violation, the police officers may order the driver to get out of the vehicle without violating the Fourth Amendment's proscription of unreasonable searches and seizures."

But the biggest fault in Jay-Z's legal presentation comes when he thinks he can get away with keeping drugs locked in his car (Jay-Z says in the real incident they were hidden in a sunroof).

A Legal Analysis Of Jay-Z's "99 Problems"

If this Essay serves no other purpose, I hope it serves to debunk, for any readers who persist in believing it, the myth that locking your trunk will keep the cops from searching it. Based on the number of my students who arrived at law school believing that if you lock your trunk and glove compartment, the police will need a warrant to search them, I surmise that it's even more widespread among the lay public.

But it's completely, 100% wrong. There is no warrant requirement for car searches. The Supreme Court has declared unequivocally that because cars are inherently mobile (and are pervasively regulated, and operated in public spaces), it is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment for the police to search the car-the whole car, and
everything in the car, including containers-whenever they have probable cause to believe that the car contains evidence of crime.

Amazing.

Here's a bit from the conclusion, but I recommend you read the whole thing not only as a guide to your own rights but for Mason's humor in breaking down the issues:

The lesson for cops is that if you want to use traffic laws as a pretext for catching drug smugglers, you can. Absolutely, no problem. But you have to do it right, and doing it right can be labor-intensive. If you're out to get some smuggling busts, have the dog unit ready.

And by "dog unit" of course he's referring to the "bitch" that is not one of Jay-Z's 99 problems.

Govern yourself accordingly.

(Hat tip to @edzitron!)