Writ of Habeas Corpus

All prisoners may file a writ of habeas corpus. However, judges receive a flood of habeas corpus petitions each year, including some that inmates prepare without the assistance of a lawyer.

In many countries, authorities may incarcerate someone for months or years without charging them. Those imprisoned have no legal means to protest or challenge the imprisonment.

The framers of the United States Constitution wanted to prohibit this kind of abuse of power in the United States. Therefore, they included a specific clause in the U.S. Constitution to safeguard the right, known as habeas corpus.

What Is a Writ of Habeas Corpus?

writ of habeas corpus is a court order. It demands that a public official (such as a warden) deliver an imprisoned person to the court and show good cause for their detention. The writ allows a prisoner to challenge the legality of their confinement.

Habeas corpus has roots in English common law. It translates to "you should have the body" in Latin.

Often, the court holds a hearing on the matter. The inmate and the government may present evidence during the hearing about whether a legal basis exists for jailing the person. The court may also issue and enforce subpoenas to obtain additional evidence.

The rules for filing a federal writ of habeas corpus are codified in 28 U.S.C. §§ 2241-2256. Generally, one cannot file a writ of habeas corpus unless they show the government has detained them. Additionally, a state prisoner cannot file a federal writ unless they exhaust all available state remedies. The federal court will likely dismiss the writ if the defendant fails to exhaust all available remedies.

What Happens if a Court Grants a Writ of Habeas Corpus?

There are several types of habeas relief available. Depending on what the evidence reveals, the judge may grant the inmate post-conviction relief such as:

  • An immediate release from prison
  • A reduction of their sentence
  • An order halting illegal conditions of confinement
  • A declaration of rights

The type of habeas relief granted depends on the evidence presented during the habeas hearing.

Writs of Habeas Corpus vs. Appeals

Habeas corpus is different from the right of direct appeal. In a criminal appeal, defendants may challenge their criminal conviction or sentence. The appellate court reviews the district court's rulings. The defendant may file another appeal to a higher court, such as their state's supreme court or the U.S. Supreme Court.

A defendant may use the appeals process to challenge their lower court conviction for the following reasons, among others:

Habeas corpus provides a separate avenue for challenging imprisonment. Typically, prisoners use it after their challenge to the court of appeals fails. Habeas corpus often serves as a last resort for inmates who insist that the government unjustly imprisoned them.

Limitations on Habeas Corpus

 Strict procedures govern which petitions judges may consider. Rules generally bar inmates from repetitively filing petitions about the same matter.

Both state and federal courts may consider habeas corpus petitions. Federal courts sometimes decide that a state unjustly imprisoned someone and order their release. However, Congress has imposed restrictions on federal courts' authority to overrule state courts in this manner.

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA)

Congress passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), a federal statute, in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. The AEDPA and the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) sought to reduce the number of habeas corpus petitions and civil rights complaints in federal court, respectively.

The AEDPA narrowed a defendant's ability to file a habeas corpus petition. The restrictions are codified at 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Among others, it sets out the following rules:

  • If a state court decided the defendant's case on the merits, a federal court would not grant a writ of habeas corpus unless the state court's decision was contrary to the law.
  • A federal court reviewing a habeas corpus petition presumes that the state court's decisions regarding factual issues are correct. The defendant must rebut the presumption by clear and convincing evidence.
  • A person filing a habeas corpus petition in federal court must exhaust all state remedies before doing so.

The AEDPA imposes a one-year time limit from the defendant's judgment date to file a habeas corpus petition (although other dates may apply).

Research indicates the AEDPA's goal of reducing the number of petitions filed in federal court failed. The total number of filings doubled from 1982 to 2013.

However, given the increase in the prison population during that time, the number of federal habeas corpus petitions per inmate may be more accurate than the total number of petitions filed. Research indicates the habeas corpus petitions filed per prisoner have remained about the same.

Writs of Habeas Corpus vs. Civil Rights Complaints

When an inmate does not challenge the fact of their imprisonment but rather the conditions of confinement, they must file a civil rights complaint instead of a habeas corpus petition. For example, a prisoner or detainee may challenge the legality of the following conditions through a civil rights complaint:

  • Prison officials' mistreatment of the prisoner
  • Unsafe conditions at the prison
  • A violation of their constitutional rights

Under the PLRA, inmates contesting conditions generally must first attempt to resolve the matter through available grievance procedures. This allows corrections officials an opportunity to remedy problems before litigation.

Get Legal Help Understanding Writ of Habeas Corpus

If you believe the government has illegally imprisoned you, consider petitioning for a writ of habeas corpus. Contact a skilled criminal defense attorney to discuss your situation today. A criminal defense lawyer can provide legal advice regarding:

If you are facing criminal charges, do not delay in contacting a criminal defense attorney in your jurisdiction.

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