Cupp v. Murphy Case Brief

Why is the case important?

An individual was convicted of murdering his wife. The police took samples of physical evidence without the permission of the individual.

Facts of the case


Whether the taking of trace evidence from beneath the Respondent’s fingernails without the permission of the Respondent was unlawful?


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.’
Though he did not have the full warning of official suspicion that a formal arrest provides, the Respondent 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.


“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.”

  • Case Brief: 1973
  • Petitioner: Cupp
  • Respondent: Murphy
  • Decided by: Burger Court

Citation: 412 US 291 (1973)
Argued: Mar 20, 1973
Decided: May 29, 1973