What Is Habeas Corpus?

Habeas Corpus is an essential instrument in safeguarding citizens' freedom against punitive state actions.
Habeas Corpus is an essential instrument in safeguarding citizens' freedom against punitive state actions.

Habeas Corpus is a Latin word that can be loosely translated to "that you have the body." Courts employ habeas corpus in determining whether a person convicted by the state was rightfully imprisoned. The writ brings the detainee before the courts to determine whether the ruling to sentence the person to time in jail was the correct sentence. It is commonly used when the participants in a case feel that the earlier decision to imprison a suspect was unfair or when the mental status of a convicted person is questionable. A petition involving Habeas Corpus petition is filed as civil action against the state officer. In some instance, the writ is used to determine the amount of bail, whether the court acted within the law, and the extradition processes.

Historical Background

The origin of Habeas corpus can be traced back to the early 13th century when King John signed the 39th clause of the Magna Carta. The clause stated that “a person shall not be imprisoned except by the judges and by the law.” Although it was initially designed to stop rulers from using their powers to incarcerate people illegally, the English courts began using the writ in their court proceedings in the 1600s. It became part of the Anglo-American jurisprudence and was adopted by the US in 1789 when James Madison advocated for the adoption of the writ and the Bill of Rights. The US justice system recognize the writ as an essential instrument that safeguards the freedom of the citizenry against punitive state actions and must be administered flexibly to ensure that the wrongs of the justice system are corrected.

Habeas Corpus in the Modern United States

In most countries the constitution protects Habeas corpus. Secondly, a prisoner cannot file successive habeas petitions unless approved by the Court of Appeal, and finally, the habeas relief is only granted when the court decision contradicted the law or involved unreasonable applications. In 1996, Congress altered the writ by adopting the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. In 2005 and 2006, the US military adopted an Act that narrowed down the habeas relief of inmates in Guantanamo bay. In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that all persons held by the US on suspicions of being enemy combatants have the right to the writ whether held in or outside the country. The petition must be in written form and signed by the petitioner or a person acting on his behalf.

Functions of Habeas Corpus

Habeas corpus seeks to correct wrongful convictions of either federal or state prisoners who challenge the judicial processes and the legality of their convictions. It is also used to challenge deportation and immigration cases, and martial court rulings. The writ is also used when the defendant feels that there was an adequate basis for detention, is denial of bail or parole, or when there is claim of double jeopardy.


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