The defendant’s wife was murdered by strangulation. Soon thereafter, the defendant and his attorney voluntarily went to the police station for questioning. The officers noticed a dark spot on the defendant’s finger. Suspecting the spot might be dried blood and knowing that evidence of strangulation is often found under an assailant’s fingernails, an officer asked the defendant if he could take a scraping sample from the defendant’s fingernails. The defendant refused, put his hands behind his back and appeared to rub them together. The defendant then put his hands in his pockets and appeared to be cleaning them. Without a warrant, officers forcefully took the samples, which contained traces of skin, blood, and fabric from the victim’s nightgown.
Whether the warrantless search of the defendant’s fingernails was an unreasonable search?
No. The Court found that the existence of probable cause and the very limited intrusion undertaken at the station to preserve the readily destructible evidence was a reasonable search.
The search of the defendant’s fingernails went beyond observing the physical characteristics constantly exposed to the public. It constituted the type of severe, though brief, intrusion upon personal security that is subject to the Fourth Amendment.
Even though the defendant was not arrested, he was sufficiently apprised of his suspected role in the crime to motivate him to attempt to destroy what evidence he could. His actions of putting his hands behind his back and then into his pockets were a sufficient indication of the likelihood of the destruction of evidence. While a full Chimel search incident to arrest would not be justified (the defendant had not been placed under arrest) the Court held that a limited intrusion to preserve evidence is reasonable. These actions by the defendant, along with the existence of probable cause, justified the limited intrusion undertaken by the government to preserve the evidence under the defendant’s fingernails.
NOTE: This case is often cited as a “search incident to arrest” case, and justifiably so. However, it is placed in this section to serve as an example of the urgency brought about by the possibility of the destruction of evidence. As the Court stated “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 readydestructibility of the evidence, we cannot say that this search violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments (underline added).”
412 U.S. 291, 93 S. Ct. 2000 (1973)