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Rochin v. California

The Supreme Court Hears The Case

With support from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Rochin petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted certiorari or review of the lower courts' decisions and began hearing the case on 16 October 1951. The Supreme Court felt the case raised questions about the way California enforced its penal codes concerning the Fourteenth Amendment's call for due process at the state level. The Court set out to determine whether the arrest and conviction of Rochin "offend[ed] those canons of decency and fairness which express the notions of justice" as Justice Frankfurter, writing for the majority, quoted from Malinski v. New York (1945).

The Court likened the police's method of obtaining evidence from Rochin to coercing a confession from him. The Court reasoned that just as testimony forced by police brutality would not be admitted in court, likewise evidence forcibly extracted from a suspect's body should not be admitted. Though Justice Frankfurter conceded that the concept of due process of law was vague and changed over time, he nonetheless contended that the police clearly overstepped the boundaries of their job and human decency, bringing about the conviction of Rochin in a manner that violated a general sense of justice and fair play.

Although they agreed with Justice Frankfurter's conclusion, other justices argued that the due process of law line of reasoning carried too little constitutional weight, remaining murky and difficult to apply. Instead, they turned to more concrete constitutional right violations to order the reversal of the lower courts' decisions. Unconvinced by the majority's reliance on due process, Justice Black argued that the Fifth Amendment prohibits the method used by the police to obtain the evidence from Rochin. Justice Black cited the Court's decision in Boyd v. United States (1886), reasoning "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."

Furthermore, Justice Black also criticized the reasoning of the majority, maintaining that the Bill of Rights protects individual liberties much more effectively and permanently than recourse to vague notions of due process. Moreover, Justice Black argued that not only did the majority bypass the Bill of Rights, but also weakened it by basing its decision on the somewhat arbitrary concept of what shocks the conscience.

Justice Douglas also argued for the reversal of the lower courts' decisions, but felt that the majority's reasons were invalid. Instead, Justice Douglas agreed with Justice Black that the Fifth Amendment ban on compulsory self-incriminating testimony covered both forced confessions as well as forced evidence from the body. In addition, he warned that similar decisions would lead to the erosion of citizens' rights at the state level, resulting from the Court's refusal to uphold the basic rights guaranteed by the Constitution and relying on fleeting and subjective Ideas.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1941 to 1953Rochin v. California - Significance, Key Amendments In The Case, The Arrest And Conviction Of Rochin, The Supreme Court Hears The Case