The writ of habeas corpus is a legal action that compels a person to produce another person who is being wrongfully detained. It is a fundamental civil liberty and one of the most important rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. We’ll further discuss the concept in this article.
Definition of Writ of Habeas Corpus
A writ of habeas corpus is a Latin expression with a long history, and it means “to produce the body.” As a “writ,” a writ of habeas corpus is a court order demanding that a government official deliver an imprisoned individual to the court, showing a valid reason for that person’s detention.
Often, what happens when a writ of habeas corpus is granted is that the court will hold a hearing on the matter, during which time the inmate and the government can both present evidence regarding whether there is a lawful basis for jailing the person, including evidence gathered through subpoenas for documents or testimony from outside third parties.
Depending on what the evidence reveals, judges may grant inmates relief in the form of:
- Reduction in the sentence
- Release from prison
- An order halting illegal conditions of confinement
- A declaration of rights
The writ of habeas corpus has been around for a very long time. It was introduced in England’s Magna Carta in the 1200s and was passionately advocated for by the United States’ Founding Fathers in the 1700s. The writ of habeas corpus in the U.S. Constitution is established in Article 1, Section 9. In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized it as “the fundamental instrument for safeguarding individual freedom against arbitrary and lawless state action.”
Today, habeas corpus is used chiefly as a post-conviction remedy for prisoners who challenge the legality of the federal laws that resulted in their detention.
Other uses of habeas corpus can include deportation or immigration cases and matters concerning court proceedings before military commissions, military detentions, and convictions in military court. Additionally, habeas corpus is used to determine preliminary issues in criminal cases, such as the:
- Adequacy of the basis for a prisoner’s detention
- Appropriateness of removal to another federal district court
- Denial of bail or parole; a claim of double jeopardy
- Failure to provide for a speedy trial
- Legality of extraditing a prisoner to a foreign country
Who Can Petition for a Writ?
On their own or with the assistance of a lawyer, an inmate may petition for a writ of habeas corpus. However, the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution does not guarantee the right to court-appointed counsel for post-conviction relief or habeas corpus petitions, which means that the courts are flooded each year with prisoners making their best attempts to understand the law and present their cases.
What Are the Requirements of Habeas Corpus?
The federal statutes found at 28 U.S.C. §§ 2241–2256 outline the procedural aspects of federal habeas proceedings.
There are two prerequisites for habeas review:
- The petitioner must be in custody when the petition is filed.
- A prisoner held in state government custody must have exhausted all state remedies before seeking relief from a federal court.
Any federal court may grant a writ of habeas corpus to a petitioner within the jurisdiction.
The petition must be in writing and signed and verified either by the petitioner seeking relief or by someone acting on their behalf. It must state the facts concerning the applicant’s custody, name the custodian as the respondent, and include the legal basis for the request for habeas corpus.
Federal courts aren’t required to hear the petition if a previous petition showed the same issues, no new grounds have been brought forward, and there are also limits on how many times a prisoner may get a habeas petition.
What Are the Limitations of Habeas Corpus?
There are a variety of limitations imposed on habeas corpus petitions, many being enacted by the U.S. Congress and some the result of U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
For example, under the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act, inmates contesting conditions must first attempt to resolve the matter through available grievance procedures. This way, correctional officials have an opportunity to remedy problems before litigation.
Similarly, when an inmate is not challenging the fact of being jailed but rather the conditions of confinement — for example, claiming severe mistreatment, unsanitariness, or unlawful prison policies — it is typically necessary to file a civil rights complaint instead of a habeas corpus petition.
In 1996, Congress narrowed the writ of habeas corpus with the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. AEDPA has three main points: first, it imposes a one-year statute of limitations on habeas petitions, meaning the petition must be filed within a year of the alleged wrongfulness of the imprisonment. Second, unless a Court of Appeals gives its approval, the petitioner may not file successive habeas corpus petitions. Lastly, habeas relief is only available when the state court’s determination was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” See 28 U.S.C. §2254.
Suspension of Writ of Habeas Corpus
Notwithstanding limitations of habeas corpus, outright suspension of the important right is rare due to protections afforded by the U.S. Constitution. Specifically, the Suspension Clause of the Constitution in Article I, Section 9, Clause 2 states: “[t]he Privileges of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended unless when in Cases of Rebellion of Invasion the public Safety may require it.”
Thus, only Congress can suspend the writ of habeas corpus through its own affirmative actions or an express delegation to the Executive Branch of government.
Contact a Skilled Federal Appeals Attorney Today
At the Law Offices of Seth Kretzer, our team is well-versed in the procedures for petitioning for a writ of habeas corpus. In addition, our nationwide criminal appeals attorneys fully understand how the federal civil appeals process works and want to do everything in their power to help you.