Landmark Supreme Court Case: Rochin v. California (1952)
Rochin v. California (1952) is the 97th landmark Supreme Court case, twelfth in the Criminal Rights module, featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Science & Technology
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
Rochin v. California (1952)
On July 1, 1949, three Los Angeles County deputy sheriffs entered the Rochins’ residence without a search warrant and forcibly entered Rochin’s room on the second floor. Upon entering the room, the deputies noticed two capsules on the night stand. Rochin immediately swallowed the capsules after Deputy Jack Jones asked him, “Whose stuff is this?” Jones then grabbed and squeezed Rochin by the neck, as well as shoving his fingers in Rochin’s mouth as he attempted to eject the capsules.
The deputies, unable to obtain the capsules, handcuffed and took Rochin to Angeles Emergency Hospital where he was strapped to an operating table and had a tube forcibly placed in his mouth and into his stomach and given an emetic solution, whereupon he vomited the capsules into a bucket. The deputies then retrieved the capsules and tested them to be morphine. Subsequently, this was submitted as evidence, and Rochin was found guilty of violating California Health and Safety Code § 11500 as having an unlawful possession of morphine.
Rochin appealed his case on the basis that his rights, guaranteed to him by Amendments V and XIV of the United States Constitution and by Article I(1)(13)(19) of the California Constitution rendered the evidence inadmissible, and that the forced stomach pumping was unconstitutionally compelled self-incrimination. The appeals court denied his defense arguing that the evidence was admissible, despite the egregious behavior of the officers, as it was “competent evidence,” and the courts are not allowed to question the means in which it was obtained. As the court wrote, “illegally obtained evidence is admissible on a criminal charge in this state.”
Q: Did the police procedure forcing Rochin to vomit violate the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment?
A: Yes. The police violated Rochin’s right to due process of law.
8-0 holding the use at trial of evidence obtained by conduct that “shocks the conscience” violates due process. Second District Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District of California reversed. Due process was an admittedly vague concept, but it prohibited “conduct that shocks the conscience.” This balancing test is seen as particularly subjective and was mocked in a concurring opinion by Justice Black.
Next Criminal Rights Case: U.S. v. Kahriger (1953)
Previous Criminal Rights Case: Wolf v. Colorado (1949)
Previous Case: Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952)