Post-Conviction Strategies

habeas petitions/criminal appeals

The Importance of Habeas Corpus

 

OVERVIEW:

            Latin for “you have the body.”  A writ of habeas corpus is used to bring a prisoner or other detainee 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. See, e.g. Knowles v. Mirzayance, 556 U.S.___ (2009); Felker v. Turpin, 518 US 1051 (1996); McCleskey v. Zant, 499 US 467 (1991).

SOURCES OF HABEAS CORPUS LAW:

            The sources of habeas corpus can be found in the Constitution, statutory law, and case law. The Suspension Clause of the United States Constitution 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.” Art. I, Sec. 9, Clause 2.

            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 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.”

            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.

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.

            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 imprisonment, 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.

Source: Legal Information Institute, Habeas Corpus https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/habeas_corpus