Cupp v. Murphy

412 U.S. 291

Case Year: 1973

Case Ruling: 7-2, Reversed

Opinion Justice: Stewart

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Blackmun, Burger, Marshall, Powell, Rehnquist, White


1st Concurring Opinion

Author: Blackmun


1st Dissenting Opinion

Author: Brennan


2nd Concurring Opinion

Author: Marshall


2nd Dissenting Opinion

Author: Douglas


3rd Concurring Opinion

Author: Powell


3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


The body of Daniel Murphy's wife was discovered in her Portland, Oregon, home. The cause of death was strangulation, and abrasions and lacerations were found on her neck and throat. There was no evidence of a break-in or robbery. When word of the murder reached Murphy, who was not living with his wife at the time, he telephoned Portland police and volunteered to come to the police station for questioning. His attorney met him there. A police officer noticed a dark spot on Murphy's finger, which he thought might be dried blood. Because evidence of violent acts sometimes can be found under fingernails, the officer asked Murphy if he would allow police to take scrapings from his nails. Murphy refused. Thereafter, Murphy kept his hands out of sight, in his pockets or behind his back. The officer heard the jingle of keys or coins, and thought that Murphy might be using these articles to remove the material under his nails. Therefore, in spite of Murphy's protests and without a warrant, police took the scrapings, which turned out to include traces of blood and skin cells from the victim and fibers from her nightgown. On the basis of this and other evidence, Murphy was convicted of second-degree murder. He challenged the evidence as a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. When a court of appeals agreed with Murphy, the state appealed to the Supreme Court.



... 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.... "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.'"...

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 reversed.



I agree with the Court that exigent circumstances existed making it likely that the fingernail scrapings of suspect Murphy might vanish if he were free to move about. The police would therefore have been justified in detaining him while a search warrant was sought from a magistrate. None was sought and the Court now holds there was probable cause to search or arrest, making a warrant unnecessary.

Whether there was or was not probable cause is difficult to determine on this record. It is a question that the Court of Appeals never reached....

The question is clouded in my mind because the police did not arrest Murphy until a month later. It is a case not covered byChimel v. California on which the Court relies, for in Chimel an arrest had been made....

The reason why no arrest of Murphy was made on the day his fingernails were scraped creates a nagging doubt that they did not then have probable cause to make an arrest and did not reach that conclusion until a month later. Why was Murphy allowed to roam at will, a free man, for the next month? The evolving pattern of a conspiracy offense might induce the police to turn a suspect loose in order to tail him and see what other suspects could be brought into their net. But no such circumstances were present here.

What the decision made today comes down to, I fear, is that "suspicion" is the basis for a search of the person without a warrant. Yet "probable cause" is the requirement of the Fourth Amendment which is applicable to the States by reason of the Fourteenth Amendment.... Suspicion has never been sufficient for a warrantless search, save for the narrow situation of searches incident to an arrest as was involved in Chimel. That exception is designed ... to protect the officer against assaults through weapons within easy reach of the accused or to save evidence within that narrow zone from destruction....

The issue of probable cause should be considered by the Court of Appeals. On the record before us and the arguments based on it I cannot say there was "probable cause" for an arrest and for a search, since the arrest came after a month's delay. The only weight we can put in the scales to turn suspicion into probable cause is Murphy's conviction by a jury based on the illegally obtained evidence. That is but a simple way of making the end justify the means--a principle wholly at war with our constitutionally enshrined adversary system.