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Law School Case Brief

Cupp v. Murphy - 412 U.S. 291, 93 S. Ct. 2000 (1973)


Where there is the existence of probable cause, a very limited intrusion undertaken incident to a station house detention, and a ready destructibility of evidence, a warrantless search of a defendant's fingernails does not violate the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.


Respondent Daniel Murphy’s wife 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. Upon receiving word of the murder, respondent 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 was often found under the assailant's fingernails, the police asked respondent if they could take a sample of scrapings from his fingernails. Over respondent Daniel Murphy’s protest and without a warrant, police in the course of station-house questioning in connection with a murder, took samples from the respondent's fingernails and discovered evidence used to convict him. 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, and the United States Supreme Court denied certiorari. Agreeing with the trial court and the Oregon Court of Appeals that the police had probable cause to arrest the suspect when they detained him and scraped his fingernails, the United States District Court for the District of Oregon denied his petition for habeas corpus. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed on the ground that even if probable cause existed for issuance of a warrant, there were no exigent circumstances justifying a warrantless search. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.


Did the taking of respondent’s fingernail scrapings without his consent and without warrant violate the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments?




The United States Supreme Court held that U.S. Const. amend. IV permitted police to take fingernail scrapings from respondent without his consent, when respondent voluntarily submitted to station house questioning with his lawyer present, but before his formal arrest. The Court found that respondent's person was "seized," under the meaning of U.S. Const. amend. IV, when he was detained at the station house against his will, even though he was not formally arrested at that time. Nevertheless, because police had probable cause to arrest respondent at that moment had they so chosen, their search of respondent's fingernails was analogous to a search incident to formal arrest. The evanescent nature of the evidence, which respondent attempted to conceal and could easily have destroyed, weighed heavily in the court's finding that the search was constitutionally reasonable. The Court accordingly reversed the court of appeal’s grant of federal habeas corpus relief.

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