Rochin v. California


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Rochin v. California

In Rochin v. California, 342 U.S. 165, 72 S. Ct. 205, 96 L. Ed. 183 (1952), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for police to pump a criminal suspect's stomach and use the resulting evidence at trial. The Court held that such conduct was "shocking to the conscience" and that the evidence must be suppressed under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

On the morning of July 1, 1949, three Los Angeles County deputy sheriffs went to the home of Antonio Rochin. The police did not have a Search Warrant but had some information that Rochin was selling narcotics. Finding the outside door open, they entered the dwelling. They went to the second floor, where they forced open the door to Rochin's room. They found Rochin sitting partly dressed on the side of the bed, where his wife was lying. One of the deputies noticed two capsules on a night-stand and asked, "Whose stuff is this?" Rochin grabbed the capsules and put them in his mouth. The three deputies then wrestled with Rochin and sought to open his mouth so they could extract the pills. When this failed, the deputies handcuffed Rochin and took him to a hospital, where at their direction a doctor forced an emetic solution through a tube into Rochin's stomach. The solution induced vomiting, and in the vomited matter the deputies found two morphine capsules.

Rochin was tried and convicted of narcotics possession. The conviction was based solely on the morphine capsules, though Rochin unsuccessfully challenged their admission. After the California appellate courts upheld the conviction, Rochin filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.

At the time of Rochin v. California, the U.S. Supreme Court rarely intruded into the police procedures of the states. Not until the 1960s would the Court apply the Bill of Rights amendments dealing with Criminal Procedure to the states (despite the consistent efforts of Justices hugo l. black and william o. douglas to incorporate these rights through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment).

Because of this situation, Rochin could not rely on the Fourth Amendment, which protects the people against unreasonable searches and seizures, or the Fifth Amendment, which protects a person from being a witness against himself. At that time the Fourth and Fifth Amendments applied only against the federal government. If they had applied to the states, the searches of Rochin's home and stomach would have been unconstitutional and the evidence suppressed under the Fourth Amendment's Exclusionary Rule.

A majority of the Court in Rochin refused to apply the Fifth Amendment to the states despite the arguments of Justices Black and Douglas in their concurring opinions. Instead, the Court relied solely on the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause as the basis for striking down the search. Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote for the majority that the Due Process Clause contains a general standard of conduct by which states must abide. A state cannot offend "those canons of decency and fairness which express the notions of justice of English-speaking peoples." Due process of law requires the state to observe those principles that are "so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental."

The police conduct here did more than offend "private sentimentalism about combating crime too energetically." This conduct "shock[ed] the conscience," offending even those with hardened sensibilities. The treatment of Rochin was "too close to the rack and screw to permit of constitutional differentiation."

Frankfurter defended the shock the conscience test as a responsible means of forcing states in their criminal prosecutions to "respect certain decencies of civilized conduct." Due process of law cannot be precisely defined, as it is a "historic and generative principle." It was clear to the Court that a coercive search of Rochin's stomach contents offended "the community's sense of fair play and decency" as much as a coerced verbal confession would.

At the time of Rochin, coerced confessions were inadmissible in state courts. The Supreme Court, in Adamson v. California, 332 U.S. 46, 67 S. Ct. 1672, 91 L. Ed. 1903 (1947), had applied the Due Process Clause to reach this result. It would have been unfair to admit the morphine capsules obtained by physical abuse while suppressing a confession obtained by physical abuse. Characterizing the police action as "brutal conduct," Frankfurter concluded that allowing admission of the morphine capsules would discredit the law and "brutalize the temper of a society."

Justice Black, in his concurring opinion, agreed that the police conduct was unconstitutional but argued that the Court did not have to resort to its vague and subjective shock the conscience test. Black, noting the precise language of the Fifth Amendment, believed the Court could easily ground its authority in that amendment by incorporating it into the Fourteenth Amendment. This was preferable to the "nebulous standards" articulated by Frankfurter.

Justice Douglas, in his concurring opinion, attacked the shock the conscience test for its conclusion that California's state law that admitted evidence such as Rochin's violated "decencies of civilized conduct." He pointed out that only three states would probably exclude the Rochin evidence. The remaining states were served by "responsible courts with judges as sensitive as we are to the proper standards for law administration." He also noted that even the Fifth Amendment's provision against Self-Incrimination was not recognized by "all civilized legal procedures." The fact that the Framers required the Fifth Amendment to be used in federal courts made it "impossible for me to say it is not a requirement of due process for a trial in the state courthouse."

Whether Rochin retains any legal relevance has been much debated over the years. The Supreme Court incorporated the Fifth Amendment Privilege against Self-Incrimination into the Fourteenth Amendment in 1964 (Malloy v. Hogan, 378 U.S. 1, 84 S. Ct. 1489, 12 L. Ed. 2d 653) and the Fourth Amendment's exclusionary rule in 1961 (mapp v. ohio, 367 U.S. 643, 81 S. Ct. 1684, 6 L. Ed. 2d 1081). As a result, state and federal criminal constitutional rights are identical.

Some commentators believe Rochin is important because it stands for the proposition that the Due Process Clause provides a protection for citizens separate from, and independent of, the Bill of Rights provisions like the Fourth Amendment that have now been applied to the states. The case also shows that even if the Supreme Court were to abandon the Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule, the Due Process Clause will sometimes require exclusion of evidence in cases where police conduct is egregious enough to shock the conscience.

Other commentators and judges have expressed misgivings about the shock the conscience test. In their view, the test is too vague and gives federal judges too much power over state law enforcement. These critics argue that no clear line separates conduct that is merely offensive from conduct that shocks the conscience.

Further readings

Del Carmen, Rolando R. 2001. Criminal Procedure: Search and Seizure. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth.

McWhirter, Darien A. 1994. Search, Seizure, and Privacy. Westport, Conn.: Oryx.

Miller, Randall K. 1997. "The Limits of U.S. International Law Enforcement After Verdugo-Urquidez: Resurrecting Rochin." University of Pittsburgh Law Review 58 (summer).

Cross-references

Criminal Law; Criminal Procedure; Due Process of Law; Incorporation Doctrine; Search and Seizure; Shock-the-Conscience Test.