Rochin v. California: What Shocks the Conscience

Jan. 30, 2012
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)

Justices Black and Douglas wrote concurring opinions.  Both believed that there was a violation of the Fifth Amendment in addition to the fourteenth.  Their standard was that the process the officers took violated Rochin’s freedom of self-incrimination.  Douglas went on to say that the manner the evidence was obtained violated “decencies of civilized conduct” (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).

The officers illegally entered the home of the defendant and as we say at times tossed the house.  The only thing seen was the two capsules on the table which Rochin consumed.  There was no search warrant for the home or, the content of his stomach.  Putting one’s self in the shoes of Rochin would you want this done to you?  

Thus, the court established the shocks the conscience standard that should be applied in all cases. We as law enforcement officers are held to that higher standard.  Today a case of this type could very well land the officers in jail and definitely in internal affairs.  Since that time other cases have ruled concluded the “shock the conscience standard” and rightly so.  Law enforcement is a noble profession of which I was proud to be a member of for thirty seven years.  We should stay within the confines of law and human decency.

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About The Author:

Randy Rider began his career with the Douglas County Sheriff office, Georgia in 1974. He received several promotions eventually to investigations. His areas of expertise are extensive having worked crimes from petty theft to murder. In 1983 he became employed with the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice as an investigator, promoted to Principal Investigator. He eventually moved into the Internal Affairs Unit as an investigator and as a supervisor.

Rider was elected President of the National Internal Affairs Investigators Association in 2005 and stepped down in 2010 having served five years. He is currently the Chaplain of the organization.

He is employed with the Public Agency Training Council one of the largest police training organizations in the country. Rider travels the country teaching officers on internal investigations of corrections facilities and first line supervisors on investigations of citizen’s complaints. He has experience is police audits.

Over the course of his career he has conducted hundreds of investigations concerning abuse, neglect, and use of force by law enforcement officers. Additionally, he has years of experience in custodial investigations, including numerous investigations involving the highly prevalent but seldom reported cases of inmate on inmate abuse. He has conducted investigations of police personnel for acts of misconduct.

A member of the IACP he worked with the organization on the document “Building Trust between the Police and the Citizens They Serve.” Currently he is an advisor on the Leading by Legacy program. He is an advisor to the International Chiefs of Police and the Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services.

Randy is a columnist for as the internal affairs author. He published the weekly NIAIA newsletter for five years. He currently publishes the riderreport a police newsletter.

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