Rochin v. California: What Shocks the Conscience

Have you ever wondered what the origin was of the "Shocks the conscience" standard so often cited by trainers, instructors and the courts?

On July 1, 1949 three Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies received information that Rochin was selling narcotics from his mother-in-law’s home.  The officers went to the home and found an entry point open, so they entered the home.  They went to Rochin’s room and forced entry.  Once inside they saw Rochin sitting on the bed beside his wife who was lying down. There were two capsules on a night stand.  The officers asked who owned them.  Rochin grabbed the pills and swallowed them.

All three officers tried to stop Rochin from swallowing the pills without success.  Rochin was handcuffed and taken to the area hospital.   The officers told a doctor there to give Rochin an Emetic drug to induce vomiting.  The doctor did so by forcing the tube into Rochin’s stomach against his consent. Rochin vomited and the pills were retrieved. Examination of the pills revealed they contained morphine. 

Subsequently, Rochin was given at to a bench trial and convicted.  The primary evidence was the two pills which were placed into evidence over Rochin’s objections that the pills were illegally obtained.  He was convicted and sentenced to 60 days.

Rochin appealed the case and the District Court on Appeals upheld the conviction.  Rochin appealed to the California Supreme Court who refused to hear the case.  However, one of three judges, while finding that "the record in this case reveals a shocking series of violations of constitutional rights," concurred only because he felt bound by decisions of his Supreme Court.  "Were guilty of unlawfully assaulting, battering, torturing and falsely imprisoning the defendant at the alleged hospital."  (101 Cal. App. 2d 140, 143, 225 P. 2d 1, 3.)

The case ended in the Supreme Court with the case being reversed.  The court’s concern was due process of the defendant.

“What the majority hold is that the Due Process Clause empowers this Court to nullify any state law if its application "shocks the conscience,” offends "a sense of justice" or runs counter to the "decencies of civilized conduct." The majority emphasize that these statements do not refer to their own consciences or to their senses of justice and decency. For we are told that "we may not draw on our merely personal and private notions"; our judgment must be grounded on "considerations deeply rooted in reason and in the compelling traditions of the legal profession." We are further admonished to measure the validity of state practices, not by our reason, or by the traditions of the legal profession, but by "the community's sense of fair play and decency"; by the "traditions and conscience of our people"; or by "those canons of decency and fairness [*176] which express the notions of justice of English-speaking peoples." These canons are made necessary, it is said, because of "interests of society pushing in opposite directions."

Applying these general considerations to the circumstances of the present case, we are compelled to conclude that the proceedings by which this conviction was obtained do more than offend some fastidious squeamishness or private sentimentalism about combatting crime too energetically.  This is conduct that shocks the conscience. Illegally breaking into the privacy of the petitioner,  the struggle to open his mouth and remove what was there, the forcible extraction of his stomach's contents -- this course of proceeding by agents  [**210]  of government to obtain evidence is bound to offend even hardened sensibilities.  They are methods too close to the rack and the screw to permit of constitutional differentiation. (ROCHIN v. CALIFORNIA, No. 83, SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES, 342 U.S. 165; 72 S. Ct. 205; 96 L. Ed. 183; 1952 U.S. LEXIS 2576; 25 A.L.R.2d 1396)

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