"99 Problems" is a classic, one of the most famous hip-hop songs ever and no small part of the case for Jay-Z as the greatest rapper in history. It is also, according to Southewestern University Associate Law Professor Caleb Mason, a valuable lesson for law students, policemen and drug dealers alike.
Mason spent about a month in early 2011 writing a paper on the specifics of the song's second verse - the traffic stop one ("Well you was doing fifty-five in a fifty-four"). The paper breaks down the verse line-by-line, exploring where the narrator and cop stand or don't stand on solid legal ground. The paper was published in the St. Louis University Law Journal in the Spring 2012 issue, and it received widespread attention earlier this month when Gawker caught wind of it.
We talked to Mason about the particulars of the kind of traffic stop described in the verse, why too many people give the police consent to search their car and what value pop culture adds to keeping society free and peaceful.
Kiernan Maletsky: I think we're getting to a place where people are thinking about hip-hop in a different way. Big, mainstream culture is starting to understand what kind of value it adds to the discussion about society in general.
Caleb Mason: Oh completely. I think it's completely appropriate, pedagogically. I mean, this is a crime narrative. We have lots of crime narratives in any number of genres. That's a big part of understanding the law.
Yours is certainly not a paper where you're taking a stand on one side or the other.
It's in everybody's interest for people to know their rights. I don't think anybody is well served by having a society in which people are ignorant of their rights. One of the things that the song illustrates most profoundly is the ability that you have to say no to the police. This is something you can do; you don't have to consent.
I assume that's kind of a common-sense lesson that you hope people will get, but when you look at the statistics on consent in traffic stops, the vast majority of the time, ninety-plus percent of the time, when the police ask somebody if they can search the vehicle, people generally give consent. And this includes people who are carrying large amounts of contraband.
The person doesn't really see denial as a viable option. One question I always ask is, "Could you have a Miranda type policy for search?" If I'm on the street and say, "Hey, buddy, do you consent to my searching your car," I don't have to tell you that you have the right to say no. And it would have been easy for the Supreme Court to set up a regime like that, they way they did for interrogation, but they chose not to.
So that has resulted in the consent search being your sort of go-to grab-bag if you don't have an obvious other way to get into the vehicle for a search. It also works as a sort of belts and suspenders approach. If you have borderline probable cause, you might as well get consent too. And this is the advice that we would give to police - see if you can get consent. So I think it's useful for popular culture to give people at least some illustration of the extent to which they can say no.
Sometimes the police will just not search you. If the cop in the song had ignored Jay-Z and said, "Well, screw you I'm going to search the car anyway," then it would probably be suppressed. There's no consent and the probable cause is borderline at best. I think that's a really important lesson.
Humor me - why is it that it's important for people, even criminals, to know the extent of their rights?
If you're going to have rights for anybody, then you have to have rights for the perps as well. If you're going to provide a legal defense for the innocent, you have to provide a legal defense for the guilty as well. Because we don't know who the guilty and innocent are.
It's the same thing here. Everybody has relations with the police. And those interactions are either going to be pervasively coercive, where everybody is being thrown against the wall and patted down all the time. Or they're going to be characterized by respect and rules - nobody gets searched unless there's a reason for it.
The rest of the interview and the paper are on the next page. One of the reasons we feel free is that we have an expectation that we're not going to be just grabbed, arrested and searched randomly, without a good reason that can hold up in court.
The police don't want to be seen as just the toughest gang on the block. If the police tried to operate in an environment in which people only obeyed them because of fear, it would be a lot harder to actually investigate crime, to prevent crime. Which is why the biggest nightmare for cops, prosecutors and Federal agents is always when you have some scandal that exposes malfeasance on the part of the practitioners in the investigation of crime. It just kills you, because you have to rebuild that reputation and that trust.
You said you wrote this as an exercise for your students; is that something that you've explored before, using pop culture to explore legal issues?
Oh God yes. All the time. My job is to teach students how the rules of criminal procedure govern a case. There are a whole bunch of constitutional rules that govern how the police can investigate crime, and the rights that people have.
One of the classes I teach is searches and interrogation. Those are obviously big themes in pop culture - I try to use it as much as possible.
What are some of the other examples you've used?
One of the movies and also books I like is Clockers. There are just some excellent scenes from the perspective of both sides. Those are the ones I look for, the ones that have some things from the perspective of the cops and some from the perspective of the dealers, in this case.
So this was the first time you had done hip-hop lyrics?
Yes. A lot of what we talk about are incidents that were triggered with traffic stops. So we have a lot of scenarios like this. I had a research assistant who said, "Well, it's just like doing 55 in a 54.'" And I had another student who loaned me the autobiography [Decoded]. I actually really loved the book.