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What is Habeas Corpus?

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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 13 November 2016
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Much like the medical and scientific communities, the legal profession uses Latin as a form of universal language. A writ of habeas corpus issued by a Spanish court, for example, is easily recognized by a judge working in the United States. Habeas corpus literally means 'you have the body', and is one of the most basic rights of those who have been imprisoned for crimes. The first uses of a writ (court order) of habeas corpus can be traced all the way back to the Middle Ages.

In a typical case involving a writ of habeas corpus, a prisoner held for drug trafficking in Texas can petition a federal court to review the fairness of the sentence or any violation of his constitutional rights. In order to consider the petition, a federal judge must be able to examine the prisoner in his courtroom. He or she will issue a writ of habeas corpus to the state-level jailers currently holding the prisoner. This assures the federal court that the prisoner is indeed alive and in acceptable health.

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Once the prisoner has been physically produced, the federal court can then evaluate the circumstances of the case and decide whether any of the prisoner's federal rights were violated. This could mean determining whether a police wiretap was legally warranted, or whether evidence used to convict the prisoner was handled properly. Without a writ of habeas corpus, an innocent or improperly convicted person could spend years behind bars without much legal protection.

In the world of law, the term habeas corpus only describes part of the story. There are writs of habeas corpus which can compel a prisoner to testify as a witness, to establish identity or provide the court with additional information. By far the most common use is to make sure a prisoner has not been mistreated and is indeed free to appear in further proceedings.

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