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Writ of Habeas Corpus

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

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

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

Writ of Habeas Corpus: How it Works

A writ of habeas corpus (which literally means to "produce the body") is a court order demanding that a public official (such as a warden) deliver an imprisoned individual to the court and show a valid reason for that person's detention. The procedure provides a means for prison inmates, or others acting on their behalf, to dispute the legal basis for confinement. Habeas corpus has deep roots in English common law.

Often, the court holds a hearing on the matter, during which the inmate and the government can both present evidence about whether there is a lawful basis for jailing the person. The court may also issue and enforce subpoenas in order to obtain additional evidence.

Depending on what the evidence reveals, the judge may grant the inmate relief such as:

  • Release from prison,
  • Reduction in the sentence,
  • An order halting illegal conditions of confinement, or
  • A declaration of rights.

It's important not to confuse habeas corpus with the right of direct appeal. Criminal defendants are always entitled to appeal a conviction or sentence to a higher court, which then reviews the trial judge's rulings. Habeas corpus provides a separate avenue for challenging imprisonment, and is normally used after a direct appeal has failed. It often serves as a last resort for inmates who insist that a miscarriage of justice has occurred.

Limitations of Habeas Corpus

A writ of habeas corpus is not available in every situation. Because judges receive a flood of habeas corpus petitions each year, including some that inmates prepare without the assistance of a lawyer, strict procedures govern which ones are allowed to proceed. Inmates are generally barred from repetitively filing petitions about the same matter.

Both state and federal courts can hear habeas corpus petitions. Federal courts sometimes decide that a state conviction was unjust and order the person's release. However, Congress has imposed restrictions on federal courts' authority to overrule state courts in this manner.

When an inmate is not challenging the fact of being in jail but rather the conditions of confinement -- for instance, claiming severe mistreatment or unlawful prison policies -- it is usually necessary to file a civil rights complaint instead of a habeas corpus petition. Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, inmates contesting conditions generally must first attempt to resolve the matter through available grievance procedures, so that correctional officials have an opportunity to remedy problems before litigation.

Get Legal Help Understanding Writ of Habeas Corpus

If you believe you're being detained unlawfully or without adequate evidence of guilt, you may consider petitioning for a writ of habeas corpus to force the government's hand. After all, it's your right. Get started today by contacting a skilled criminal defense attorney to discuss your situation.

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