Last updated on: 12/28/2009 | Author:

Cupp v. Murphy

Decided on May 29, 1973; 412 US 291

Murder evidence found in victim’s husband’s fingernails, but was obtained without a warrant


A. Issues Discussed:

Criminal Justice (4th Amendment), 14th Amendment

B. Legal Question Presented:

Is it a violation of the Fourth and 14th Amendment for police officers to detain and search a suspect without obtaining a warrant to do so?


A. Background:

Respondent Daniel Murphy’s wife was murdered by strangulation.  Mr. Murphy voluntarily went to the police station, and during the interrogation police noticed a spot on respondent’s fingernail which they suspected was dried blood. The officers asked respondent if they could take a sample of scrapings from his fingernails, but he refused. Under protest and without a warrant, the officers proceeded to take the sample, which turned out to contain traces of skin and blood cells of the victim, and fabric from the victim’s nightgown. This incriminating evidence was admitted at trial. Respondent was found guilty by a jury of the second-degree murder of his wife.

 Respondent appealed his conviction, claiming that the fingernail scrapings were the product of an unconstitutional search under the Fourth and 14th Amendments. The Oregon Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction.  Respondent then commenced another action for federal habeas corpus relief.  The district court denied the habeas petition. Reversing the district court’s ruling, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit assumed that there had been probable cause for the officers to search or arrest, but held that in the absence of an arrest or other exigent circumstances, the search was unconstitutional. The case was brought for review by the US Supreme Court via certiorari.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Howard R. Lonergan argued the cause and filed a brief for respondent.

Thomas H. Denney argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the brief were Lee Johnson and John W. Osborn.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Melvin L. Wulf, Burt Neuborne, and Joel M. Gora filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union, as amicus curiae, urging affirmance.
Alan S. Ganz, Frank Carrington, Ronald E. Sherk, and Fred E. Inbau filed a brief for Americans for Effective Law Enforcement, Inc., et al. as amici curiae urging reversal.

“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…

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.”

Held: the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed.

Justice Vote: 2 Pro vs. 7 Con:

  • Stewart, P. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • White, B. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Con (Wrote concurring opinion) 
  • Blackmun Con (Wrote concurring opinion) 
  • Burger, W. Con (Joined Blackmun’s concurrence)
  • Powell, L. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined Powell’s concurrence)
  • Douglas, W. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging affirmance; the US Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in a 7-2 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.