Rochin v. California

United States Supreme Court

342 U.S. 165; 72 S.Ct. 205; 96 L.Ed. 183 (1952)


            Here, the Court again considers the meaning of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the relationship of the Bill of Rights to the states. Again, the specific issue is that of compulsory self-­incrimination. The facts are contained in Justice Frankfurter’s majority opinion.


            Mr. Justice Frankfurter delivered the opinion of the Court.


            Having “some information that [the petitioner] was selling narcotics,” three deputy sheriffs of the County of Los Angeles, on the morning of July 1, 1949, made for the two-story dwelling house in which Rochin lived with his mother, common-law wife, brothers and sisters. Finding the outside door open, they entered and then forced open the door to Rochin’s room on the second floor. Inside they found petitioner sitting partly dressed on the side of the bed, upon which his wife was lying. On a “night stand” beside the bed the deputies spied two capsules. When asked “Whose stuff is this?” Rochin seized the capsules and put them in his mouth. A struggle ensued, in the course of which the three officers “jumped upon him” and attempted to extract the capsules. The force they applied proved unavailing against Rochin’s resistance. He was handcuffed and taken to a hospital. At the direction of one of the officers a doctor forced an emetic solution through a tube into Rochin’s stomach against his will. This “stomach pumping” produced vomiting. In the vomited matter were found two capsules which proved to contain morphine.


            Rochin was brought to trial before a California Superior Court, sitting without a jury, on the charge of possessing “a preparation of morphine” in violation of the California Health and Safety Code. ... Rochin was convicted and sentenced to sixty days’ imprisonment. The chief evidence against him was the two capsules. They were admitted over petitioner’s objection, although the means of obtaining them was frankly set forth in the testimony by one of the deputies, substantially as here narrated.


            On appeal, the District Court of Appeal affirmed the conviction, despite the finding that the officers “were guilty of unlawfully breaking into and entering defendant’s room and were guilty of unlawfully assaulting and battering defendant while in the room,” and “were guilty of unlawfully assaulting, battering, torturing and falsely imprisoning the defendant at the alleged hospital.” ...


            This Court granted certiorari, because a serious question is raised as to the limitations which the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment imposes on the conduct of criminal proceedings by the States. ...


            In our federal system the administration of criminal justice is predominantly committed to the care of the States. The power to define crimes belongs to Congress only as an appropriate means of carrying into execution its limited grant of legislative powers. Broadly speaking, crimes in the United States are what the laws of the individual States make them, subject to the limitations of Art. 1 [sec.] 10 [cl. 1], in the original Constitution, prohibiting bills of attainder and ex post facto laws, and of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments.


            These limitations, in the main, concern not restrictions upon the powers of the States to define crime, except in the restricted area where federal authority has preempted the field, but restrictions upon the manner in which the States may enforce their penal codes. Accordingly, in reviewing a State criminal conviction under a claim of right guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, ... “we must be deeply mindful of the responsibilities of the States for the enforcement of criminal laws, and exercise with due humility our merely negative function in subjecting convictions from state courts to the very narrow scrutiny which the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment authorizes.” Due process of law is not to be turned into a destructive dogma against the States in the administration of their systems of criminal justice.


            However, this Court too has its responsibility. Regard for the requirements of the Due Process Clause “inescapably imposes upon this Court an exercise of judgment upon the whole course of the proceedings [resulting in a conviction] in order to ascertain whether they offend those canons of decency and fairness which express the notions of justice of English-speaking peoples even toward those charged with the most heinous offenses.” ... These standards of justice are not authoritatively formulated anywhere as though they were specifics. Due process of law is a summarized constitutional guarantee of respect for those personal immunities which, as Mr. Justice Cardozo twice wrote for the Court, are “so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental,” ... or are “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.” ...


            The vague contours of the Due Process Clause do not leave judges at large. We may not draw on our merely personal and private notions and disregard the limits that bind judges in their judicial function. Even though the concept of due process of law is not final and fixed, these limits are derived from considerations that are fused in the whole nature of our judicial process. The Due Process Clause places upon this Court the duty of exercising a judgment, within the narrow confines of judicial power in reviewing State convictions, upon interests of society pushing in opposite directions.


            Due process of law thus conceived is not to be derided as resort to a revival of “natural law.” To believe that this judicial exercise of judgment could be avoided by freezing “due process of law” at some fixed stage of time or thought is to suggest that the most important aspect of constitutional adjudication is a function for inanimate machines and not for judges, for whom the independence safeguarded by Article 3 of the Constitution was designed and who are presumably guided by established standards of judicial behavior. Even cybernetics has not yet made that haughty claim. To practice the requisite detachment and to achieve sufficient objectivity no doubt demands of judges the habit of self-discipline and self-criticism, incertitude that one’s own views are incontestable and alert tolerance toward views not shared. They are precisely the qualities society has a right to expect from those entrusted with ultimate judicial power.


            Restraints on our jurisdiction are self-imposed only in the sense that there is from our decisions no immediate appeal short of impeachment or constitutional amendment. But that does not make due process of law a matter of judicial caprice. The faculties of the Due Process Clause may be indefinite and vague, but the mode of their ascertainment is not self-willed. In each case “due process of law” requires an evaluation based on a disinterested inquiry pursued in the spirit of science, on a balanced order of facts exactly and fairly stated, on the detached consideration of conflicting claims. ...


            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 combating 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 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.


            It has long since ceased to be true that due process of law is heedless of the means by which otherwise relevant and credible evidence is obtained. This was not true even before the series of recent cases enforced the constitutional principle that the States may not base convictions upon confessions, however much verified, obtained by coercion. These decisions are not arbitrary exceptions to the comprehensive right of States to fashion their own rules of evidence for criminal trials. They are not sports in our constitutional law but applications of a general principle. They are only instances of the general requirement that States in their prosecutions respect certain decencies of civilized conduct. Due process of law, as a historic and generative principle, precludes defining, and thereby confining, these standards of conduct more precisely than to say that convictions cannot be brought about by methods that offend “a sense of justice.” It would be a stultification of the responsibility which the course of constitutional history has cast upon this Court to hold that in order to convict a man the police cannot extract by force what is in his mind but can extract what is in his stomach.


            To attempt in this case to distinguish what lawyers call “real evidence” from verbal evidence is to ignore the reasons for excluding coerced confessions. Use of involuntary verbal confessions in State criminal trials is constitutionally obnoxious not only because of their unreliability. They are inadmissible under the Due Process Clause even though statements contained in them may be independently established as true. Coerced confessions offend the community’s sense of fair play and decency. So here, to sanction the brutal conduct which naturally enough was condemned by the court whose judgment is before us, would be to afford brutality the cloak of law. Nothing would be more calculated to discredit law and thereby to brutalize the temper of a society.



Mr. Justice Minton took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.



Mr. Justice Black, concurring.


            Adamson v. California ... sets out reasons for my belief that state as well as federal courts and law enforcement officers must obey the Fifth Amendment’s command that “No person ... shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” I think a person is compelled to be a witness against himself not only when he is compelled to testify, but also when as here, incriminating evidence is forcibly taken from him by a contrivance of modern science. ...


            Some constitutional provisions are stated in absolute and unqualified language such, for illustration, as the First Amendment stating that no law shall be passed prohibiting the free exercise of religion or abridging the freedom of speech or press. Other constitutional provisions do require courts to choose between competing policies, such as the Fourth Amendment which, by its terms, necessitates a judicial decision as to what is an “unreasonable” search or seizure. There is, however, no express constitutional language granting judicial power to invalidate every state law of every kind deemed “unreasonable” or contrary to the Court’s notion of civilized decencies; yet the constitutional philosophy used by the majority has, in the past, been used to deny a state the right to fix the price of gasoline, and even the right to prevent bakers from palming off smaller for larger loaves of bread. These cases, and others, show the extent to which the evanescent standards of the majority’s philosophy have been used to nullify state legislative programs passed to suppress evil economic practices. What paralyzing role this same philosophy will play in the future economic affairs of this country is impossible to predict. Of even graver concern, however, is the use of the philosophy to nullify the Bill of Rights. I long ago concluded that the accordion-like qualities of this philosophy must inevitably imperil all the individual liberty safeguards specifically enumerated in the Bill of Rights. Recent decisions of this Court sanctioning abridgment of the freedom of speech and press have strengthened this conclusion.



Mr. Justice Douglas, concurring.


            ... As an original matter it might be debatable whether the provision in the Fifth Amendment that no person “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself” serves the ends of justice. Not all civilized legal procedures recognize it. But the choice was made by the Framers, a choice which sets a standard for legal trials in this country. The Framers made it a standard of due process for prosecutions by the Federal Government. If it is a requirement of due process for a trial in the federal courthouse, it is impossible for me to say it is not a requirement of due process for a trial in the state courthouse. That was the issue recently surveyed in Adamson v. California. ... The Court rejected the view that compelled testimony should be excluded and held in substance that the accused in a state trial can be forced to testify against himself. I disagree. Of course an accused can be compelled to be present at the trial, to stand, to sit, to turn this way or that, and to try on a cap or a coat. But I think that words taken from his lips, capsules taken from his stomach, blood taken from his veins are all inadmissible provided they are taken from him without his consent. They are inadmissible because of the command of the Fifth Amendment.


            That is an unequivocal, definite and workable rule of evidence for state and federal courts. But we cannot in fairness free the state courts from that command and yet excoriate them for flouting the “decencies of civilized conduct” when they admit the evidence. That is to make the rule turn not on the Constitution but on the idiosyncrasies of the judges who sit here...