Cupp v. Murphy, 412 U.S. 291 (1979)

Fundamental Cases on the Fourth Amendment by Adam J. McKee

JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

The respondent, Daniel Murphy, was convicted by a jury in an Oregon court of the second-degree murder of his wife.  The victim died by strangulation in her home in the city of Portland, and abrasions and lacerations were found on her throat.  There was no sign of a break-in or robbery.  Word of the murder was sent to the respondent, who was not then living with his wife.  Upon receiving the message, Murphy promptly telephoned the Portland police and voluntarily came into Portland for questioning.  Shortly after the respondent’s arrival at the station house, where he was met by retained counsel, the police noticed a dark spot on the respondent’s finger.  Suspecting that the spot might be dried blood, and knowing that evidence of strangulation is often found under the assailant’s fingernails, the police asked Murphy if they could take a sample of scrapings from his fingernails.  He refused.  Under protest and without a warrant, the police proceeded to take the samples, which turned out to contain traces of skin and blood cells, and fabric from the victim’s nightgown.  This incriminating evidence was admitted at the trial.

The respondent appealed his conviction, claiming that the fingernail scrapings were the product of an unconstitutional search under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.  The Oregon Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction, and we denied certiorari.  Murphy then commenced the present action for federal habeas corpus relief.

The District Court, in an unreported decision, denied the habeas petition, and the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed.  The Court of Appeals assumed the presence of probable cause to search or arrest, but held that in the absence of an arrest or other exigent circumstances, the search was unconstitutional.  We granted certiorari to consider the constitutional question presented.

The trial court, the Oregon Court of Appeals, and the Federal District Court all agreed that the police had probable cause to arrest the respondent at the time they detained him and scraped his fingernails.  As the Oregon Court of Appeals said,

At the time the detectives took these scrapings they knew: 

The bedroom in which the wife was found dead showed no signs of disturbance, which fact tended to indicate a killer known to the victim rather, than to a burglar or other stranger.

The decedent’s son, the only other person in the house that night, did not have fingernails which could have made the lacerations observed on the victim’s throat.

The defendant and his deceased wife had had a stormy marriage, and did not get along well.

The defendant had, in fact, been at his home on the night of the murder.  He left and drove back to central Oregon, claiming that he did not enter the house or see his wife.  He volunteered a great deal of information without being asked, yet expressed no concern or curiosity about his wife’s fate.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit did not disagree with the conclusion that the police had probable cause to make an arrest, nor do we.

It is also undisputed that the police did not obtain an arrest warrant or formally “arrest” the respondent, as that term is understood under Oregon law.  The respondent was detained only long enough to take the fingernail scrapings, and was not formally “arrested” until approximately one month later.  Nevertheless, the detention of the respondent against his will constituted a seizure of his person, and the Fourth Amendment guarantee of freedom from “unreasonable searches and seizures” is clearly implicated.  As the Court said in Davis v. Mississippi, “Nothing is more clear than that the Fourth Amendment was meant to prevent wholesale intrusions upon the personal security of our citizenry, whether these intrusions be termed ‘arrests’ or ‘investigatory detentions.'”

In Davis, the Court held that fingerprints obtained during the brief detention of persons seized in a police dragnet procedure, without probable cause, were inadmissible in evidence.  Though the Court recognized that fingerprinting “involves none of the probing into an individual’s private life and thoughts that marks an interrogation or search.”  The Court held the station house detention in that case to be violative of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.  “Investigatory seizures would subject unlimited numbers of innocent persons to the harassment and ignominy incident to involuntary detention,”

The respondent in this case, like Davis, was briefly detained at the station house.  Yet here there was, as three courts have found, probable cause to believe that the respondent had committed the murder.  The vice of the detention in Davis is therefore absent in the case before us.

The inquiry does not end here, however, because Murphy was subjected to a search as well as a seizure of his person.  Unlike the fingerprinting in Davis, the voice exemplar obtained in United States v. Dionisio or the handwriting exemplar obtained in United States v. Mara, the search of the respondent’s fingernails went beyond mere “physical characteristics . . . constantly exposed to the public,” and constituted the type of “severe, though brief, intrusion upon cherished personal security” that is subject to constitutional scrutiny.

We believe this search was constitutionally permissible under the principles of Chimel v. California.  Chimel stands in a long line of cases recognizing an exception to the warrant requirement when a search is incident to a valid arrest.  The basis for this exception is that, when an arrest is made, it is reasonable for a police officer to expect the arrestee to use any weapons he may have and to attempt to destroy any incriminating evidence then in his possession.  The Court recognized in Chimel that the scope of a warrantless search must be commensurate with the rationale that excepts the search from the warrant requirement.  Thus, a warrantless search incident to arrest, the Court held in Chimel, must be limited to the area “into which an arrestee might reach.”

Where there is no formal arrest, as in the case before us, a person might well be less hostile to the police and less likely to take conspicuous, immediate steps to destroy incriminating evidence on his person.  Since he knows he is going to be released, he might be likely instead to be concerned with diverting attention away from himself.  Accordingly, we do not hold that a full Chimel search would have been justified in this case without a formal arrest and without a warrant.  But the respondent was not subjected to such a search.

At the time Murphy was being detained at the station house, he was obviously aware of the detectives’ suspicions.  Though he did not have the full warning of official suspicion that a formal arrest provides, Murphy was sufficiently apprised of his suspected role in the crime to motivate him to attempt to destroy what evidence he could without attracting further attention.  Testimony at trial indicated that, after he refused to consent to the taking of fingernail samples, he put his hands behind his back and appeared to rub them together.  He then put his hands in his pockets, and a “metallic sound, such as keys or change rattling” was heard.  The rationale of Chimel, in these circumstances, justified the police in subjecting him to the very limited search necessary to preserve the highly evanescent evidence they found under his fingernails.

On the facts of this case, considering the existence of probable cause, the very limited intrusion undertaken incident to the station house detention, and the ready destructibility of the evidence, we cannot say that this search violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.  Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is 


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