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[Latin, You have the body.] A writ (court order) that commands an individual or a government official who has restrained another to produce the prisoner at a designated time and place so that the court can determine the legality of custody and decide whether to order the prisoner's release.
A writ of habeas corpus directs a person, usually a prison warden, to produce the prisoner and justify the prisoner's detention. If the prisoner argues successfully that the incarceration is in violation of a constitutional right, the court may order the prisoner's release. Habeas corpus relief also may be used to obtain custody of a child or to gain the release of a detained person who is insane, is a drug addict, or has an infectious disease. Usually, however, it is a response to imprisonment by the criminal justice system.
A writ of habeas corpus is authorized by statute in federal courts and in all state courts. An inmate in state or federal prison asks for the writ by filing a petition with the court that sentenced him or her. In most states, and in federal courts, the inmate is given the opportunity to present a short oral argument in a hearing before the court. He or she also may receive an evidentiary hearing to establish evidence for the petition.
The habeas corpus concept was first expressed in the Magna Charta, a constitutional document forced on King John by English landowners at Runnymede on June 15, 1215. Among the liberties declared in the Magna Charta was that "No free man shall be seized, or imprisoned, or disseised, or outlawed, or exiled, or injured in any way, nor will we enter on him or send against him except by the lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land." This principle evolved to mean that no person should be deprived of freedom without due process of law.
The writ of habeas corpus was first used by the common-law courts in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century England. These courts, composed of legal professionals, were in competition with feudal courts, which were controlled by local landowners, or "lords." The feudal courts lacked procedural consistency, and on that basis, the common-law courts began to issue writs demanding the release of persons imprisoned by them. From the late fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, the common-law courts used the writ to order the release of persons held by royal courts, such as the Chancery, admiralty courts, and the Star Chamber.
The only reference to the writ of habeas corpus in the U.S. Constitution is contained in Article I, Section 9, Clause 2. This clause provides, "The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it." President Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ in 1861, when he authorized his Civil War generals to arrest anyone they thought to be dangerous. In addition, Congress suspended it in 1863 to allow the Union army to hold accused persons temporarily until trial in the civilian courts. The Union army reportedly ignored the statute suspending the writ and conducted trials under martial law.
In 1789, Congress passed the judiciary act of 1789 (ch. 20, § 14, 1 Stat. 73 [codified in title 28 of the U.S.C.A.]), which granted to federal courts the power to hear the habeas corpus petitions of federal prisoners. In 1867, Congress passed the Habeas Corpus Act of February 5 (ch. 28, 14 Stat. 385 [28 U.S.C.A. §§ 2241 et seq.]). This statute gave federal courts the power to issue habeas corpus writs for "any person … restrained in violation of the Constitution, or of any treaty or law of the United States." The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted it to mean that federal courts may hear the habeas corpus petitions of state prisoners as well as federal prisoners.
The writ of habeas corpus is an extraordinary remedy because it gives a court the power to release a prisoner after the prisoner has been processed through the criminal justice system, with all its procedural safeguards and appeals. For this reason, the burden is initially on the petitioning prisoner to prove that he or she is being held in violation of a constitutional right. If the petitioner can meet this burden with sufficient evidence, the burden then shifts to the warden to justify the imprisonment.
A prisoner may file a petition for a writ of habeas corpus with the sentencing court only after exhausting all appeals and motions. Federal courts may receive a petition from a state prisoner, but not until the petitioner has attempted all available appeals and motions and habeas corpus petitions in the state courts. Federal prisoners must exhaust all available appeals and motions in the federal sentencing court and federal appeals courts before filing a habeas corpus petition with the sentencing court. If the first petition is denied, the inmate may petition the appeals courts.
A petition for a writ of habeas corpus is a civil action against the jailer. It is neither an appeal nor a continuation of the criminal case against the prisoner. It is not used to determine guilt or innocence. Rather, the purpose is solely to determine whether the confinement is in violation of a constitutional right. This is significant because it limits the scope of complaints that a petitioner may use as a basis for the writ.
Violation of the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments is the most common basis for a writ of habeas corpus. Prose-cutorial misconduct, juror malfeasance, and ineffective assistance of counsel are common due process grounds for the writ. Fifth amendment grounds include failure of the police to give Miranda warnings before in-custody questioning, in violation of the right against self-incrimination, and multiple trials, in violation of the double jeopardy prohibition. The Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment is another common ground for habeas corpus relief, especially in cases involving the death penalty or a lengthy prison term.
There are several notable restrictions on the writ's application. Fourth amendment violations of the right against unreasonable search and seizure cannot be raised in a habeas corpus petition. Prisoners are not entitled to a court-appointed attorney for habeas corpus petitions. Newly developed constitutional principles will not be applied retroactively in habeas corpus cases except where doubt is cast on the guilt of the prisoner. Delay in filing a habeas petition may result in its dismissal if the government is prejudiced (i.e., made less able to respond) by the delay. In addition, the petitioner must be in custody to request a writ of habeas corpus. This rule prevents a prisoner from challenging a conviction through habeas corpus after serving out a sentence for the conviction.
The law of habeas corpus is ever changing. In the 1990s, the U.S. Supreme Court took steps to further limit the writ's application. In Keeney v. Tamayo-Reyes, 504 U.S. 1, 112 S. Ct. 1715, 118 L. Ed. 2d 318 (1992), the Court held that a habeas corpus petitioner is not entitled to an evidentiary hearing in federal court unless she or he can show two things: a reason for failing to develop evidence at trial, and actual prejudice to the prisoner's defense as a result of the failure. In Herrera v. Collins, 506 U.S. 390, 113 S. Ct. 853, 122 L. Ed. 2d 203 (1993), the Court held that a claim of actual innocence is not a basis for federal habeas corpus relief. This means that newly discovered evidence alone does not entitle a petitioner to federal habeas corpus relief.
The availability and import of habeas corpus in state courts is also subject to change through judicial decisions and new laws. For example, in 1995, the Texas Legislature passed a law that made the habeas corpus process concurrent with appeals (Tex. Crim. Proc. Code Ann. art. 11.071). This law effectively limited the number of times that a Texas state prisoner could challenge the disposition of a criminal case. Significantly, the law applied to all criminal defendants, including those facing the death penalty. Under the legislation, a death row inmate has only one round of review in Texas state courts before seeking relief in federal court.
In 1996, Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) (Pub. L. No. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214). Congress sought to streamline post-conviction appeals proceedings and to curtail the time that prisoners could use to seek habeas corpus relief. Since the enactment of the law, the U.S. Supreme Court has been called upon to interpret a number of the AEDPA provisions; these rulings primarily have addressed technical details of the workings of the new law but the Court has endorsed the AEDPA and removed jurisdiction from the lower federal courts to hear many habeas petitions. The Court upheld the constitutionality of the AEDPA in Felker v. Turpin, 518 U.S. 651, 116 S. Ct. 2333, 135 L. Ed. 2d 827 (1996).
The habeas corpus provisions represent a major shift in federal-state judicial relations, for Congress directed that federal courts generally defer to state court judgments on questions of federal Constitutional Law in criminal cases. The AEDPA established a "deference" standard, which mandates that the federal courts, in reviewing state court convictions, defer to a state court ruling on the merits of any habeas corpus claim. This deferral includes questions of fact and of law, as well as mixed questions of fact and law. A federal court must defer unless the state court adjudication of the claim resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established
federal law, as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court; or if the state conviction resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding.
The AEDPA also contains a number of specific rules for habeas corpus review. The act provides for a one-year filing deadline for non-capital habeas corpus petitions. The time starts running at the conclusion of direct review or expiration of time for seeking such review. The law requires a certificate of appealability from a circuit judge or justice before a petitioner may appeal from denial of relief. The petitioner must make a substantial showing of denial of a constitutional right, and the certificate must be issue-specific. The AEDPA also allows federal courts to deny relief with respect to unexhausted claims but may not grant relief if the claim is unexhausted. The habeas petitioner can avoid exhaustion only if there is no available state remedy or the remedy is ineffective to protect the petitioner's rights. If there is no state remedy because of a procedural default, federal review is still prohibited.
The AEDPA also places restrictions on the ability of a petitioner to obtain an evidentiary hearing on a claim where the prisoner failed to develop the factual basis. Because state court fact-findings are presumed to be correct, the petitioner must rebut the presumption by clear and convincing evidence. To obtain an evidentiary hearing, the petitioner must show that the claim relies on a new rule made retroactive by the U.S. Supreme Court or that the factual predicate could not have been discovered earlier through due diligence. Moreover, in all cases, the petitioner must show by clear and convincing evidence that but for the alleged error for which a hearing is sought, no reasonable factfinder would have found petitioner guilty of the underlying offense. This is a steep hurdle for a habeas petitioner to overcome.
The AEDPA also seeks to prevent the abuse of habeas corpus by limiting the number of times a prisoner may ask for a writ. A successive habeas petition may not be filed in district court unless the petitioner is authorized to do so by a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Felker, characterized this provision as an acceptable "gatekeeping" mechanism. If petitioners make a prima facie showing that they satisfy the exceptions against successive petitions they may proceed; otherwise the court must dismiss the petition. If a successive claim was presented in a prior petition, it must be dismissed; no exceptions are authorized by the AEDPA. Though the AEDPA provides some narrow exceptions to this rule, any claim must establish by clear and convincing evidence that but for the error no reasonable factfinder would have found the petitioner guilty of the underlying offense.
In habeas petitions from death row inmates, the AEDPA imposes additional rules beyond those already described. The rules apply to states that establish certain standards for competence of counsel. For states to benefit from these additional limitations, they must provide a mechanism for appointment and compensation of competent counsel in state post-conviction proceedings or for appointment of counsel to handle the appeal and post-conviction remedies in a unitary proceeding. Once the state court has made an appointment of counsel, a federal court that would have jurisdiction over the case may enter a stay of execution. The stay expires if a timely petition is not filed, if the prisoner properly waives the right to pursue federal habeas relief, or if relief is denied at any stage of federal review. Once a stay vacates under any of those circumstances, a new one may not be imposed unless the petitioner can overcome the presumption against successive petitions.
The AEDPA sets a time limit for habeas petition in capital cases: The petition must be filed within 180 days after final state court affirmance on direct review. In addition, the AEDPA requires that capital habeas cases be given priority over all non-capital matters, and it imposes time limits on resolution. These include a decision by the district court within 180 days after the petition is filed, although the court may extend its time by no more than 30 days. Failure by the district court to act within the time limits may be enforced by a petition for writ of mandate. More importantly, a court of appeals must decide the case within 120 days after the reply brief is filed; any petition for rehearing must be decided within 30 days after the petition is filed, or 30 days after any requested responsive pleading is filed. If rehearing or rehearing en banc is granted, the case must be decided within 120 days after the order granting such rehearing. In addition, the time limits are applicable to all first petitions, successive petitions, and habeas cases considered on remand from a court of appeals or the U.S. Supreme Court.
The AEDPA has changed the legal landscape for prisoners seeking writs of habeas corpus. Petitioners must act within set deadlines, and they must attempt to place all issues in dispute before the first habeas-reviewing federal court or risk the chance of being rejected in a successive petition.
Freedman, Eric M. 2001. Habeas Corpus: Rethinking the Great Writ of Liberty. New York: New York Univ. Press.
Harrington, James C., and Anne More Burnham. 1995. "Texas's New Habeas Corpus Procedure for Death-Row Inmates: Kafkaesque—and Probably Unconstitutional." St. Mary's Law Journal 27 (fall).
Jones, Andrew A. 1994. "Federal Habeas Corpus Evidentiary Hearings: Has the Court Deliberately Bypassed Section 2254(D)?" Wisconsin Law Review (January-February).
Morse, Charles R. 1993. "Habeas Corpus and 'Actual Innocence': Herrera v. Collins, 113 S. Ct. 853 (1993)." Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy 16 (autumn).