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Federal Habeas Corpus

Introduction to Federal Habeas Corpus

Suppose you have been incarcerated due to a criminal accusation or conviction in state or federal court. In that case, you have the constitutional right to seek relief in the federal courts if you believe you have been wrongfully detained.

One such avenue for this type of legal remedy is filing a habeas corpus petition. Although complex, the basic concept behind habeas corpus petitions is that they allow individuals to challenge their imprisonment due to violations of constitutional rights.

Federal Habeas Corpus

Federal habeas corpus is a procedure by which a federal court may review the legality of someone's incarceration. Mostly, it's the stage of the criminal appellate process that follows direct appeal and any state collateral review.

Federal laws presume that any prisoners challenging the legality of the procedures for which they were tried or sentenced will get only one chance.

Any relief for state prisoners is only available if the courts ignore or reject valid claims.  Further, there are strict time limits for which they can petition the federal courts for relief.

Notably, a prisoner relying upon an interpretation of law must succeed on direct appeal.  A federal habeas review can't be used to establish or claim the benefits of a new rule. Expedited federal habeas procedures are available for state death row inmates.

Simply put, federal habeas corpus is a legal procedure under which a court can review the legality of an individual's incarceration, which is usually invoked after their conviction and the exhaustion of the standard means of appeal.

For this petition to succeed, it must be filed for the right reasons, in the right circumstances, and with a compelling legal argument as to why you've been illegally detained.

Let's delve into the basics of federal habeas corpus so that you will be better informed as someone who has been charged with a crime or is currently incarcerated.

What Is Habeas Corpus?

The origins of habeas corpus as a legal principle can be traced back to England in medieval times—specifically, the Magna Carta of 1215.

The term in Latin means "show me the body." A writ of habeas corpus was an order to the jailer to bring the detained person into court to determine whether they were being lawfully detained.

What Is Habeas Corpus?

In our modern U.S. court system, habeas corpus represents one of the few areas where federal and state courts intersect. A habeas corpus petition is a legal document filed by a person who believes:

  • they have been wrongfully convicted,
  • imprisoned, or
  • otherwise deprived of their rights due to violating the United States Constitution.

In most cases, it's used by state prisoners to ask the federal courts to review the circumstances of their incarceration.

By filing a federal habeas corpus petition, the petitioner is challenging the validity of their imprisonment and asking the court either to release them from prison or to grant some other form of relief that would allow them to be released from custody.

Petitioners must establish a federal constitutional violation and demonstrate that such violation created circumstances in which relief is warranted under the law. The relief requested may include subsequent retrial or re-sentencing for the accused.

28 U.S. Code § 2254

28 U.S.C. 2254 state custody; remedies in federal courts say the following:

“(a) The Supreme Court, a Justice thereof, a circuit judge, or a district court shall entertain an application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.

(b) (1) An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted unless it appears that (A) the applicant has exhausted the remedies available in the courts of the State, or (B) (i) there is an absence of available State corrective process; or

(ii) circumstances exist that render such a process ineffective in protecting the rights of the applicant.”

How Is Habeas Corpus Different From an Appeal?

A habeas corpus petition is not an appeal. An appeal is a request to a higher court to challenge a decision by the court, usually based on alleged errors in the proceedings.

A habeas corpus petition challenges the legality of the incarceration itself. While habeas corpus petitions can overlap with appeals—sometimes even resulting in additional appellate review or further proceedings—the two are distinct legal actions.

How the Process Works

Filing a federal habeas corpus petition is usually employed as a last resort to overturn a criminal conviction.

The petitioner must be an individual under the jurisdiction of the court, typically someone serving time in prison due to a conviction or sentence or, in some cases, out on bail or probation.

The petition must allege that the conviction was obtained in violation of their Constitutional rights, and they cannot mention any issues raised or could have been raised on direct review.

Petitioners must file their applications within one year of their conviction becoming final; however, courts may allow applications to be filed out of time for equitable reasons.

What Are the Requirements for Filing a Habeas Corpus?

The first step in filing a federal habeas corpus petition is ensuring it is timely and correctly submitted.

Before completing the petition itself, a "Habeas Petition Checklist" must be completed and included with the submission.  In addition to this checklist, the filing must consist of any pertinent documents such as:

  • state court records,
  • transcripts,
  • judgments,
  • opinions,
  • exhibits,
  • declarations of witnesses, or
  • other relevant evidence.

Depending on where the matter originated, individuals may also be required to complete other federal forms. Due to the complexity of the process, it's best to have an experienced federal criminal defense attorney file the petition for you.

What Are the Considerations When Filing a Petition?

Federal courts typically employ a highly restrictive approach when considering habeas petitions, making these a problematic task for petitioners. When filing a federal habeas corpus petition, there are several considerations.

Filing a Federal Habeas Corpus Petition

Time limits are the most obvious: a habeas petition must typically be filed within one year of the conviction or denial of a state post-conviction petition, so it is essential to act quickly.

Furthermore, suppose you choose to pursue litigation in federal court. In that case, it's necessary to bear in mind the cost implications while carefully considering whether the petition can likely succeed.

Filing a petition requires weighing all of these factors before deciding if it is worth pursuing constitutionally guaranteed relief. Again, an experienced attorney is your best bet to determine whether habeas corpus suits your case and to explain the appeals process.

You can contact our law firm for case review by phone or use the contact form. We provide legal representation for federal criminal matters across the United States. Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, California.

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