Habeas corpus

Latin for "that you have the body." A writ of habeas corpus is used to bring a prisoner or other detainee (e.g. institutionalized mental patient) before the court to determine if the person's imprisonment or detention is lawful. In the US system, federal courts can use the writ of habeas corpus to determine if a state's detention of a prisoner is valid.  A habeas petition proceeds as a civil action against the State agent (usually a warden) who holds the defendant in custody. It can also be used to examine any extradition processes used, amount of bail, and the jurisdiction of the court.

See, e.g. Knowles v. Mirzayance 556 U.S.___(2009),  Felker v. Turpin 518 US 1051 (1996) and McCleskey v. Zant 499 US 467 (1991).

 

Overview

     Habeas corpus is a writ that is used to bring a party who has been criminally convicted in state court into federal court. Usually, writs of habeas corpus are used to review the legality of the party’s arrest, imprisonment, or detention. The federal court’s review of a habeas corpus petition is considered to be collateral relief of a state court decision rather than direct review.

     Habeas corpus originated in English common law as a means to protect individuals from illegal detention. An individual who had been held in custody could file a petition seeking a writ which would require the custodian to provide adequate legal justification for the detention. If the custodian failed to do so, the court could order the petitioner’s release.

     Today, habeas corpus is mainly used as a post-conviction remedy for state or federal prisoners who challenge the legality of the application of federal laws that were used in the judicial proceedings that resulted in their detention. Other uses of habeas corpus include immigration or deportation cases and matters concerning military detentions, court proceedings before military commissions, and convictions in military court. Finally, habeas corpus is used to determine preliminary matters in criminal cases, such as: (i) an adequate basis for detention; (ii) removal to another federal district court; (iii) the denial of bail or parole; (iv) a claim of double jeopardy; (v) the failure to provide for a speedy trial or hearing; or (vi) the legality of extradition to a foreign country.

     The sources of habeas corpus can be found in the Constitution, statutory law, and case law. The Suspension Clause of the Constitution (Article I, Section 9, Clause 2), states: “The 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.” Although the Constitution does not specifically create the right to habeas corpus relief, federal statutes provide federal courts with the authority to grant habeas relief to state prisoners. Only Congress has the power to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, either by its own affirmative actions or through an express delegation to the Executive. The Executive does not have the independent authority to suspend the writ.

     In the First Judiciary Act of 1789, Congress explicitly authorized the federal courts to grant habeas relief to federal prisoners. Congress expanded the writ following the Civil War, allowing for habeas relief to state prisoners if they were held in custody in violation of federal law. Federal courts granted habeas relief to state prisoners by finding that the state court lacked the proper jurisdiction. Post-World War II reforms further expanded the writ: through the incorporation process by which the Bill of Rights was applied to the states, habeas corpus became a tool by which criminal defendants sought to uphold their civil rights against illegal state action. The Warren Court further paved the way for broader habeas corpus rights.

     In 1996, Congress narrowed the writ of habeas corpus through the passage of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). AEDPA has three important aspects: first, it imposes a one-year statute of limitations on habeas petitions. Second, unless a United States Court of Appeals gave its approval, a petitioner may not file successive habeas corpus petitions. Third, 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.”

     The Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 (DTA) and the Military Commissions Act of 2006 (MCA) further narrowed the scope of habeas relief, providing that prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay may not access the federal courts through habeas corpus; instead, they must go through the military commissions and then seek appeal in the D.C. Circuit Court. However, the Supreme Court in Boumediene v. Bush (2008) expanded the territorial reach of habeas corpus, ruling that the Suspension Clause affirmatively guaranteed the right to habeas review. Thus, alien detainees designated as enemy combatants who were held outside the United States had the constitutional right to habeas corpus.

     Federal statutes (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, and a prisoner who is held in state government custody must have exhausted all state remedies, including state appellate review. Any federal court may grant a writ of habeas corpus to a petitioner who is within its jurisdiction. The habeas petition must be in writing and signed and verified either by the petitioner seeking relief or by someone acting on his or her behalf. The petition must name the custodian as the respondent and state the facts concerning the applicant’s custody and include the legal basis for the request. Federal courts are not required to hear the petition if a previous petition presented the same issues and no new grounds were brought up. Finally, a federal judge may dismiss the petition for the writ of habeas corpus if it is clear from the face of the petition that there are no possible grounds for relief.