Do not take legal advice from rappers, Google, or your untrained buddies. There are many misconceptions about the law that unfortunately could result in severe consequences. Hopefully, this post will help dispel a common myth about the law regarding police vehicle searches. If you have been arrested or are in need of legal assistance do not hesitate to call (859) 209-2101 for a free consultation.
In the popular rap song 99 Problems, the songwriter, Jay-Z, describes an exchange with the police who suspect Jay-Z of drug smuggling on a public highway. The police pull Jay-Z over for speeding then ask:
“Do you mind if I look around the car a little bit?”
To which Jay-Z responds:
“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”
Although the lyrics do not state the outcome of this exchange, the accompanying music video shows Jay-Z, having legally outsmarted the police, driving away. Jay-Z believes that he has correctly cited the Warrant Requirement mandated by the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution—that is, before a search can be conducted, the police must provide an affidavit establishing probable cause to suspect crime for approval by a neutral and detached judicial official, usually a magistrate. These few lyrics misrepresent two very important criminal procedure issues: (a) whether the police can conduct a search of a vehicle without a warrant, and (b) whether the police can conduct a search of a locked compartment without a warrant.
Contrary to Jay-Z’s argument, the police in fact do not need a warrant to search your car or a locked compartment of the car. For many of us, we spend a considerable amount of time in our cars. We often say “we live out of our cars” or “our car is a second home.” Yet, your car is not afforded the same Constitutional protections as your home.
In Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925), the Supreme Court held that a warrantless search of an automobile based upon probable cause that the vehicle contained evidence of crime in the light of an exigency arising out of the likely disappearance of the vehicle did not contravene the Warrant Clause of the Fourth Amendment. See id., at 158-159. In layman terms this means that because the car could drive away while the police were trying to obtain a warrant it would be infeasible to require the police to get a warrant.
The next questions you may ask are: “Is the trunk actually part of the vehicle? Can the police open the trunk and search in there?” The answer is yes, on both counts. The Supreme Court has stated in unequivocal terms: “[i]f probable cause justifies the search of a lawfully stopped vehicle, it justifies the search of every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search.” United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 825 (1982).
The Supreme Court has yet to specifically address the legal significance of a lock on vehicle compartments. However, the police involved in United States v. Ross “took Ross’ keys and opened the trunk…” Id. at 801. This tacitly implies that a lock on the compartment is irrelevant.
On a side note, the music video flashes a translucent image of Jay-Z’s trunk and what appears to be multiple suitcases. Likewise, these suitcases are not protected by the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court provided a bright line rule in California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565 (1991) allowing the police to “search an automobile and the containers within it where they have probable cause to believe contraband or evidence is contained.” Id. at 580. While there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in luggage locked within the trunk of a car, the Supreme Court’s ruling is the law of the land.
This does not mean that you must consent to a search of your vehicle, locked compartments, or containers in your vehicle. If a police officer asks for permission to search your vehicle you are within your rights to refuse. If the police continue with a search without permission it may be possible to have the information kept out of court for lacking probable cause or another some other reason.
Legal battles are not fought on the side of the road but in the courtroom. Trying to follow Jay-Z’s example and out-wit the police with legal arguments during a traffic stop or arrest is a bad idea. Let us fight for you. Again, if you have been arrested or are in need of legal assistant do not hesitate to call (859) 209-2101 for a free consultation.