The Supreme Court yesterday ruled that police cannot conduct an extensive search of a murder scene without first obtaining a warrant. The unsigned opinion in the case of a West Virginia minister who bludgeoned his wife to death reinforced a 1978 decision and reversed a lower court's ruling that the scene of a homicide is exempt from the constitutional prohibition on warrantless searches.

The minister, James M. Flippo, had called police in the early morning of April 30, 1996, and claimed a masked man had barged into a cabin he and his wife, Cheryl, were renting at Babcock State Park in Fayette County. Flippo, then pastor at the Church of God in Nitro, told police the man cut him with a knife and knocked him unconscious, and that when he awoke he found his wife beaten to death.

When police arrived, they immediately began searching the cabin and collecting evidence. Opening a briefcase, officers found an envelope containing photographs of a man who appeared to be taking off his jeans. It turned out that the man was a friend of Flippo's and a member of his congregation.

Prosecutors charged Flippo with his wife's murder, introducing the photos at trial as evidence that he was having an intimate relationship with the man and arguing that he killed his wife in part because she was angry about the relationship.

Flippo tried to keep the photos out of his 1997 trial, contending that police needed a warrant before going through his belongings. The trial judge denied his objection, declaring an exception to the warrant requirement for homicide scenes.

During the trial, it also emerged that shortly before his wife's death, Flippo had taken out a $100,000 life insurance policy on her, naming himself as the beneficiary. Flippo was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals rejected his appeal.

But yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court reversed, reaffirming its decision in the 1978 case Mincey v. Arizona that warrantless searches are not allowed simply because a homicide has occurred. The ruling was released as a "per curiam" opinion with no recorded vote--a method the justices use when they consider the law fairly settled and see no need to hold oral arguments or engage in lengthy discussion.

The court acknowledged that some exceptions to the warrant rule exist, such as when police must quickly search the premises for a suspected killer, but it flatly rejected a general "murder scene exception" as violating Fourth Amendment privacy guarantees.

The justices sent the case of Flippo v. West Virginia back to West Virginia courts to determine whether a new trial is required. The lower courts will review whether the cabin search was grounded on another, legitimate exception to the warrant rule.