Latin for "that you have the body." 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 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. 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, the amount of bail, and the jurisdiction of the court. See, e.g. Knowles v. Mirzayance 556 U.S. 111 (2009), Felker v. Turpin 518 US 1051 (1996) and McCleskey v. Zant 499 US 467 (1991).
The habeas corpus first originated back in 1215, through the 39th clause of the Magna Carta signed by King John, which provided "No man shall be arrested or imprisoned...except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land,"
English courts began actively considering petitions for habeas corpus in 1600. While habeas corpus had initially originated as an instrument in opposition to the king’s “divine right to incarcerate people,” there were many other constables and other authorities during those times, who imprisoned people for various reasons. Accordingly, habeas corpus also developed as the king's role to demand account for his subject who is restrained of his liberty by other authorities.
Deeply rooted in the Anglo-American jurisprudence, the law of habeas corpus was adopted in the U.S. as well. James Madison, in 1789, argued for the adoption of the Bill of Rights, including Habeas Corpus. The fourth Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Chief Justice Marshall, emphasized the importance of habeas corpus, writing in his decision in 1830, that the "great object" of the writ of habeas corpus "is the liberation of those who may be imprisoned without sufficient cause." The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that the "writ of habeas corpus is the fundamental instrument for safeguarding individual freedom against arbitrary and lawless state action" and must be "administered with the initiative and flexibility essential to ensure that miscarriages of justice within its reach are surfaced and corrected.
HABEAS CORPUS IN THE U.S. TODAY
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 or 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.
WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS AND ITS FUNCTIONS
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 writ of habeas corpus primarily acts as a writ of inquiry, issued to test the reasons or grounds for restraint and detention. The writ thus stands as a safeguard against imprisonment of those held in violation of the law, by ordering the responsible enforcement authorities to provide valid reasons for the detention. Thus, the writ is designed to obtain immediate relief from unlawful impeachment, by ordering immediate release unless with sufficient legal reasons and grounds.
As a fundamental instrument for safeguarding individual’s freedom against arbitrary and lawless state action, the writ of habeas corpus serves as a procedural device, by which executive, judicial, or other governmental restraints on personal liberty are subjected to judicial scrutiny. The purpose of the writ of habeas corpus is not to determine the guilt or innocence of a prisoner, but only to test the legality of a prisoner's current detention. In other words, the writ of habeas corpus only functions to test jurisdictional defects that may invalidate the legal authority to detain the person, and the reviewing court only examines the power and authority of the governmental authority to detain the person, and does not review the correctness of the authorities’ conclusion to detain the person.
The habeas corpus is not a narrow, static, and formalistic remedy, and must retain the flexibility to cut through various barriers of forms and procedural complexities by which a person may be imprisoned or detained. Accordingly, the writ of habeas corpus is a flexible writ that can be administered with initiative and flexibility to obtain release from illegal custody. Although the writ of habeas corpus is thus a flexible writ for obtaining a release from custody when one is illegally detained, there are some limitations to the rule of habeas corpus.
For example, circuit precedent cannot refine or sharpen a general principle of Supreme Court habeas corpus jurisprudence into a specific legal rule that the Supreme Court has not yet announced.
Further, in terms of habeas corpus review of capital sentences, the rule of retroactivity applies to capital sentencing, and new rules of constitutional interpretation announced after the defendant’s conviction cannot be retroactively applied in habeas corpus cases. There are only two rare exceptions to this general rule of retroactivity: 1) When a subsequent decision places a certain conduct or defendant beyond the reach of the criminal law that convicted the defendant. 2) when a subsequent decision recognizes a fundamental procedural right, which could have a significant impact on the likelihood of accurate conviction.
See, e.g., Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302 (1989)
[Last updated in March of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]