OCTOBER TERM, 1999
FLIPPO v. WEST VIRGINIA
ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF WEST VIRGINIA, FAYETTE COUNTY*
No. 98-8770. Decided October 18, 1999
Mter petitioner was indicted for murdering his wife, he moved to suppress evidence that the police discovered in a closed briefcase during a warrantless search of the secured crime scene, a cabin where the couple was vacationing. A West Virginia trial court denied his motion on the ground that the police were entitled to search any crime scene and the objects found there. The State Supreme Court of Appeals denied discretionary review.
Held: The trial court's position squarely conflicts with this Court's holding in Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U. S. 385, that there is no "murder scene exception" to the Fourth Amendment's Warrant Clause. While the police may make warrantless entries onto premises if they reasonably believe a person needs immediate aid and may make prompt warrantless searches of a homicide scene for possible other victims or a killer, a search is not constitutionally permissible simply because a homicide has recently occurred on the premises. Id., at 395. On remand, if properly raised, matters such as the State's contention that the search was consensual, the applicability of any other exception to the warrant rule, or the harmlessness vel non of any error in receiving this evidence may be resolved.
Certiorari granted; reversed and remanded.
Petitioner's motion to suppress evidence seized in a warrantless search of a "homicide crime scene" was denied on the ground that the police were entitled to make a thorough search of any crime scene and the objects found
*Petitioner sought a writ directed to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. That court, however, merely declined to exercise discretionary review. The last state court to rule on the merits of this case was the Circuit Court of West Virginia, Fayette County, to which the writ is therefore addressed.
there. Because the rule applied directly conflicts with Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U. S. 385 (1978), we reverse.
One night in 1996, petitioner and his wife were vacationing at a cabin in a state park. After petitioner called 911 to report that they had been attacked, the police arrived to find petitioner waiting outside the cabin, with injuries to his head and legs. After questioning him, an officer entered the building and found the body of petitioner's wife, with fatal head wounds. The officers closed off the area, took petitioner to the hospital, and searched the exterior and environs of the cabin for footprints or signs of forced entry. When a police photographer arrived at about 5:30 a.m., the officers reentered the building and proceeded to "process the crime scene." Brief in Opposition 5. For over 16 hours, they took photographs, collected evidence, and searched through the contents of the cabin. According to the trial court, "[a]t the crime scene, the investigating officers found on a table in Cabin 13, among other things, a briefcase, which they, in the ordinary course of investigating a homicide, opened, wherein they found and seized various photographs and negatives." Indictment No. 96-F-119 (Cir. Ct. Fayette County, W. Va., May 28, 1997), App. A to Pet. for Cert., p. 2.
Petitioner was indicted for the murder of his wife and moved to suppress the photographs and negatives discovered in an envelope in the closed briefcase during the search.1 He argued that the police had obtained no warrant, and that no exception to the warrant requirement justified the search and seizure.
1 The photographs included several taken of a man who appears to be taking off his jeans. He was later identified as Joel Boggess, a friend of petitioner and a member of the congregation of which petitioner was the minister. At trial, the prosecution introduced the photographs as evidence of petitioner's relationship with Mr. Boggess and argued that the victim's displeasure with this relationship was one of the reasons that petitioner may have been motivated to kill her.