99 Problems: Jay-Z and Florida Search and Seizure Law-Part One

Part one of this two part series focuses on the application of Florida Law to Jay-Z’s second verse of the song 99 Problems.

Jay-Z is the stage name of Shawn Carter. He is one of the most financially successful rappers in history. In 2003 Jay-Z released what was then billed as his “final album”, The Black Album The album has gone on to become a modern classic going platinum three times. Obviously an album as successful as the Black Album features many stand out tracks, but as this is a Criminal Law blog, we are going to focus on one track in particular: 99 Problems.

99 Problems was the third single off of the Album and eventually peaked at Number 30 on the Billboard Hot 100 list. The entire track benefits from legendary producer Rick Rubin’s production, and Jay-Z’s typical lyrical dexterity, but that is beyond the scope of this post. Instead, we will focus on the second verse of the song. The second verse describes a traffic stop Jay-Z actually experienced and described in his 2010 autobiography Decoded. When he was pulled over Jay-Z was transporting cocaine in a hidden compartment in his sunroof, and during the stop the police officer requested to search his vehicle. Jay-Z refused to give his consent to search. The officer called for a K-9 unit to come and conduct a search of the vehicle, however the K-9 unit was delayed in responding and Jay-Z described watching the K-9 unit passing him as he drove away, just missing catching what could have been a serious drug charge.

In addition to being an entertaining tale, the second verse of 99 Problems also serves as a sort of “how-to” manual for dealing with a traffic stop. This post will examine Jay-Z’s advice, with specific regard to how his advice relates to Florida Law.[1] The goal of this post is to serve as an informational examination of Florida case law as it applies to Jay-Z’s traffic stop, and should not be taken as actual legal advice. This post is certainly in no way encouraging you to break the law, or condoning transporting any illegal substances. It is merely an exercise to see how much of search and seizure law Jay-Z got right, and more importantly provide you with some advice on how to handle yourself during your next traffic stop.

If you are not familiar with the song, or have never seen the video, I’ve embedded it below so that you will have some context for this post:

With that out of the way, let’s begin:

The year’s ’94 and my trunk is raw In my rear view mirror is the mother f’ law

I got two choices y’all pull over the car or (hmmm) Bounce on the double put the pedal to the floor

Now I ain’t tryin’ to see no highway chase with Jake. Plus I got a few dollars I can fight the case

So I…pull over to the side of the road

From a legal standpoint Jay-Z makes the best decision here. First of all, if he had tried to run, the fact that he tried to run would have been enough to justify any search because any illegal seizure as a result of police conduct would have been terminated as soon as he began his flight. Johnson v. State, 689 So. 2d 376 (Fla. 4th DCA 1997) Abdullah v. State (Fla. 1st DCA 1999). This means that one potential avenue to keep evidence obtained as a result of an illegal search would have been erased as a result of Jay running from the Police. Further, a high speed chase would probably not have ended well for Jay-Z. If (more likely when) he gets caught, he will certainly be charged with Aggravated Fleeing and Eluding pursuant to Fla. Stat. § 316.1935 (3)(a) a second degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in Prison, and that’s before we even get to what he was holding in the trunk.

In the video for 99 Problems, the camera shows an x-ray view of Jay-Z’s trunk. It appears there are at least four briefcases in the trunk. A conservative estimate of the amount of cocaine contained in four briefcases is at least 400 grams. That is a trafficking amount under Fla. Stat. § 893.135(b)(1)(c). It is charged as a First Degree Felony and has a minimum mandatory sentence of seven years and a $100,000.00 fine. So, will the police find the cocaine in the trunk? The short answer is yes. Once arrested the vehicle will be impounded, and the contents of the vehicle will be inventoried. Police departments have their own policies and procedures for conducting an inventory search of an impounded vehicle, and as long as those policies are followed, and the inventory search is not just an excuse to search a vehicle, Florida has held that inventory searches are perfectly legal. See State v. Wells, 539 So. 2d 464, 468 (Fla. 1989) and Rolling v. State, 695 So. 2d 278, 294 (Fla. 1997). If the briefcases had locks on them, the officers doing the inventory search could not simply open them. However, they could have a drug dog sniff the briefcases, and if the dog alerted use the alert, along with the fact that Jay-Z fit a drug courier profile which includes the location of the stop, the age, race, and sex of the driver, and the type of vehicle being driven along with the fact that there were four locked brief cases in the trunk. Jay-Z himself points this profiling out out and of course as Jay-Z points out in the next 16 bars, “I’m young and I’m black and my hats real low” Taken together the Police will likley have enough probable cause for a warrant. Once a reviewing Judge found probable cause, the officers will be able to lawfully open the locked briefcases. A warrant being issued does not mean that there cannot be a successful Motion to Suppress the evidence, it simply means that it is much tougher to do. Vetter v. State, 395 So. 2d 1199, (Fla. 3d DCA 1981).

But what if Jay-Z somehow got rid of the contraband in his trunk during his “highway chase with Jake” by throwing it from his car? While that would eliminate the possibility of the Police finding the cocaine in his trunk, if the police found the discarded contraband it would be an even worse result. If contraband is discarded while fleeing from law enforcement, the accused loses any right to privacy in abandoned items. State v. Battis, 926 So. 2d 427, (Fla. 2nd DCA 2006). This means that any Fourth Amendment protections that applied to the Briefcases in the trunk would no longer apply, and the contraband would likely be admitted at trial. Remember even if the initial traffic stop was improper, if Jay Z ran from the stop, the running itself is a new crime and would itself provide probable cause for the police to stop him.

So Jay-Z makes the right decision and decided to pull over and try and fight the case in court if he has to.

I heard “Son do you know why I’m stoppin’ you for?” Cause I’m young and I’m black and my hats real low? Do I look like a mind reader sir, I don’t know Am I under arrest or should I guess some mo’?

“Well you was doin fifty-five in a fifty-fo’ “

There are a couple of important things to remember when you get pulled over by the police.

The first is, unlike Jay-Z’s somewhat aggressive response “Do I look like a mind reader sir”you should always begin any encounter with the police, especially during a traffic stop as politely as possible. You should understand that from an officers perspective any time they approach a vehicle they do so as if their life is in danger. They are already on high alert. That is why officers stand behind the driver’s side door when speaking to you, so that they can protect themselves from a possible attack from a driver. If your windows are up and even worse if they are tinted, the officer will be on even more of an alert because they will not be able to see clearly into the cabin of the vehicle. This is why it is important that you keep your hands where the officer can see them and you not make sudden movements. If you need to move to get something, tell the officer what you are doing and how you are going to do it before moving. This will put the officer at ease and hopefully put you on your way much quicker than if you try and instigate an officer, or show the officer attitude. That will almost certainly guarantee a similar response from the officer that pulled you over. Please be clear, I am not telling you that all officers will respond to you politely, especially an officer like in Jay-Z’s case who clearly was using the traffic stop as a pretext to detain him for investigative purposes. I am merely recommending that you attempt to put an officer at ease during a stop as early as possible. Sometimes, as illustrated in 99 Problems it won’t matter what you do, you are going to be hassled by the police.

This brings us to the second thing to remember during a traffic stop with the police: Do not admit to any wrongdoing. Jay-Z’s response was perfect here. “…I don’t Know” He does not admit to wrongdoing, and he also forces the officer to tell him why he stopped him “you was doin fifty-five in a fifty-fo’”. This information will be especially helpful for impeachment purposes at a Motion to Suppress if the officer attempts to change his reasoning for stopping Jay-Z on the stand.

Though simply pulling someone over for doing one mile over the speed limit seems a bit over eager on the part of the police officer, and Jay-Z was probably right that he was pulled over because he fit a racial profile the officer was trained to look for, the United States Supreme Court has held that pulling someone over who fits a racial profile is not a basis to grant a Motion to Suppress if there is objective probable cause for the stop (i.e. doing fifty five in a fifty four). Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 813 (1996). In fact, the United States Supreme Court has held that an officer can arrest someone even for a minor traffic infraction. Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, 532 U.S. 318 (2001). That is why “Am I under arrest…” is such a great question from Jay-Z. If the officer says no, then he is free to go (pending the conclusion of the stop of course) if he says yes, a judge will have to determine if the officer was within his rights to not only pull over, but arrest someone for doing one mile over the speed limit.

In our next post we will finish our examination of the song, and include some practical tips for interacting with the police during a traffic stop.

If you have been arrested for a drug charge please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Jason Seidman to answer any of your questions, and provide you with a free case evaluation. Call 954-740-0502 or email jason@defendingsouthflorida.com to review your options and put his experience to work for you

[1] Though the stop more likely than not occurred somewhere along the I-95 corridor between New York and Virginia, considering Jay-Z has been fairly open about his drug dealing days “down in V-A” for the purposes of this post we will apply Florida, and Supreme Court law where appropriate.