What Is Habeas Corpus? - Definition, History, Amendment & Example

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  • 0:02 Definition of Habeas Corpus
  • 0:35 Example of Habeas Corpus
  • 1:28 History of Habeas Corpus
  • 3:00 Detainee and Inmate's Rights
  • 4:26 Examples of Habeas Corpus
  • 5:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Janell Blanco
Learn about habeas corpus and the history of its use in the American legal system, and read about some court cases in which it was used. Then, test your new knowledge with a quiz.

Definition of Habeas Corpus

Habeas corpus is a petition that can be filed by a person in custody to the court regarding the circumstances of detainment. A detainee can file habeas corpus if he thinks his rights have been violated or there were factual errors surrounding the arrest and detainment, such as a wrong date of arrest, the wrong charges listed on the booking sheet, or the wrong birth date of the offender. Habeas corpus is also called the 'Great Writ.' The Latin meaning for habeas corpus is 'you shall have the body.'

Example of Habeas Corpus

After hearing a disturbance at a neighbor's home, you call the police and report the disturbance. As you peer out your window, you see your neighbor, John, being escorted to a police car. The police officers take John to the department for questioning. John answers questions about the disturbance and admits he had hit his wife. The officers then arrest John for domestic violence. John is held until sentencing for 30 days.

While in jail, he realizes he is being improperly detained, because he was never read his Miranda rights, nor was he made aware that he did not have to answer the questions the officers had asked him. John files a petition for a habeas corpus against the officers who detained him. John asks the federal courts to review the practices of the officers and the process that they used to detain and arrest him.

History of Habeas Corpus

Habeas corpus was initially part of the Judiciary Act of 1789, but it only allowed for federal prisoners to file petitions, and only if they were questioning the competence of the court. In 1867, the writ of habeas corpus was expanded by Congress in two ways: it allowed state-held prisoners to file, and it also allowed both federal and state detainees to file if they felt their detainment was illegal, rather than just if they were questioning the competence of the court.

Through the years, there have been changes made to habeas corpus. In 1915, it was expanded, and the terms were no longer restricted to violation of due process in the courts. Detainees and prisoners could file habeas corpus if they felt they were being detained under false pretenses, if there were mistakes with arrest paperwork, or the arresting officer arrested them because of evidence that was planted. Prior to 1963, state detainees were required to exhaust all of the resources available to them through the state, such as public defenders and the appeal system, before they filed habeas corpus with the federal courts. In 1963, this requirement was lifted, allowing them to file with the federal courts. Another change came with the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 and the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which stated that detainees at Guantanamo Bay and members of the military are not entitled to habeas corpus but must go through the military proceedings.

Detainee and Inmate's Rights

Habeas corpus is associated with several amendments to the U.S. Constitution, including the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth. If a detainee or inmate feels that his constitutional rights in the preceding amendments have been violated, he can file habeas corpus.

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