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Jay Z got it wrong: Why taking advice from the rapper could give you 99 Problems

Posted on 05/31/16

When Jay Z released The Black Album in 2004, the single “99 Problems” became one of the most talked about songs of the decade. An entire generation grew up knowing all the words and singing along: “Well, my glove compartment is locked, so is the trunk and the back / And I know my rights so you go’n need a warrant for that.”

Unfortunately for anyone who is planning to follow Jay Z’s legal advice at their next traffic stop, he got it wrong. Legal protections that stop warrantless searches and seizures at home generally do not apply to vehicles.

Why? A warrant is generally required to search private homes, but cars are different. The Supreme Court created an “automobile exception” to the search warrant requirement for vehicles.

How the “automobile exception” came to be

The existence of this fourth amendment exception dates back to the United States Supreme Court case Carroll v. United States in 1925, where a warrantless search was upheld by the Justices in a 7 to 2 decision (with one concurring opinion).

The Prohibition-era Court said that it was okay for police to stop the vehicle of a known purchaser of liquor and search it for alcohol. The justices reasoned that a car can be easily moved from place to place, so a driver could just move it outside of the jurisdiction if the police obtained a warrant.

The Court didn’t just give police permission to randomly stop and search all vehicles, however. The justices required that a vehicle could be searched without a search warrant only if there was probable cause to believe that evidence is present in the vehicle.

What is probable cause?

Legally speaking, probable cause is a “reasonable amount of suspicion, supported by circumstances sufficiently strong to justify a prudent and cautious person’s belief that certain facts are probably true.” Or, more simply, it means that the police must have some facts or evidence to believe you’re involved in criminal activity.

For someone like Jay Z in 99 Problems, this may involve things like how the car smells like weed or that there is a weapon spotted in the vehicle. (“Are you carrying a weapon on you? / I know a lot of you are.”)

It’s important to note, though, that probable cause is more than a hunch. The police are not allowed to search cars without warrants just because the driver fits a particular profile or they have a feeling about potential illegal activity. And minor things don’t count, so a headlight out is not enough to be probable cause for a warrantless search.

What Jay Z should have said

So, when Jay Z rapped that it was going to be necessary for the cops to get a warrant before searching his locked glove compartment and trunk, he didn’t get it exactly right. What he should have said is this: “Well, my glove compartment is locked, so is the trunk and the back / And I know my rights so you go’n need probable cause for that.”

(If you think this post is interesting, you might want to check out law professor Caleb Mason’s law review article, which gives an in-depth analysis on the entire second verse.)