Habeas Corpus Lesson for Kids: Definition & Meaning

Instructor: Elizabeth Foster

Elizabeth has been involved with tutoring since high school and has a B.A. in Classics.

Habeas corpus is a funny name, but the idea is important. Learn what habeas corpus means, what a writ of habeas corpus is, and why this funny-sounding idea can be found in the U.S. Constitution.

Habeas Corpus

Imagine you're a police officer. Now think of someone who just always gets on your nerves. Wouldn't it be fun to arrest them for any little thing, just because you could? You don't like their hair? Boom, arrested. Mom cooked green beans for dinner and you hate green beans? Arrested!

Fortunately, habeas corpus protects American citizens from illegal imprisonment. Habeas corpus is a legal rule that requires a prisoner be presented in court and that the arrester prove that there is proper cause for detaining the prisoner. Put simply, it means that if you are arrested, you have the right to make the government prove to a judge that your arrest and detainment are justified.

The purpose of habeas corpus is to ensure that there is just cause for imprisoning someone and that individuals are not illegally confined or detained.

Not everyone believes that they have been wrongfully imprisoned. But, if they do feel that way, they can file a writ of habeas corpus which is the official request to have their day in court. In Latin, habeas corpus means 'you may have the body' because the person who's keeping you in jail literally has to bring your body into the courthouse.

So, if you were arrested and jailed for chewing gum, you could file a writ of habeas corpus. In court, the arrester would have to prove to the judge that chewing gum is illegal and you were breaking the law. If the arrester can prove that, then you stay in jail. If he cannot, then they would have to let you go.

The right to a writ of habeas corpus is in the US Constitution.
Quote from the Constitution

Why Habeas Corpus is Important

It might be fun to think about arresting your mom for making green beans, but imagine if the police could just lock you up for any reason, or for no reason at all! That certainly sounds like a violation of our rights, doesn't it? The point of habeas corpus is to make sure that can't happen. It's there to control the police and other governmental entities and make sure they don't abuse their power.

Even our Founding Fathers felt strongly against unlawful imprisonment and that is why the writ of habeas corpus can be found in Article I of the U.S. Constitution. But it is the Supreme Court who stated it best in 1969 in their opinion on Harris v. Nelson, ''The writ of habeas corpus is the fundamental instrument for safeguarding individual freedom against arbitrary and lawless state action.'' Well said!

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