Nov 11, 2011

Habeas Corpus: a fundamental instrument in safeguarding individual freedom.

Habeas corpus is a Latin phrase meaning literally "you have the body" - historically, the concept dates back at least to the signing of the Magna Carta in England in 1215 but the actual procedure was first codified in English law in 1679. In legal terms, a writ of habeas corpus is a judicial mandate ordering that a person be brought before a judge or court so it can be determined whether or not that person has been convicted lawfully. Prior to its implementation a person could be imprisoned indefinitely without being charged with any particular crime, a practice which was often used to silence political or religious dissent; by petitioning for habeas corpus, a prisoner (or someone acting on their behalf) could request a person in authority to present charges and determine whether they have actually broken any laws.

Today habeas corpus is considered a fundamental right in many countries, including the United States: The Suspension Clause of the United States Constitution specifically includes it, stating that "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." In addition to Federal law, many States (including Texas) also specify provisions for habeas corpus, and it has been called "the fundamental instrument for safeguarding individual freedom against arbitrary and lawless state action."

There are two parts to the process of habeas corpus: firstly, the person charged (or someone acting on their behalf) files a petition for habeas corpus which questions the legality of the charges. If the petition is successful, a judge will issue a writ of habeas corpus. This is an actual order for the person to be brought to court. Habeas corpus can be used in various situations, such as to challenge the amount of bond or to challenge a contempt order, but most commonly it is used to attack a final conviction after all appeals have been decided and while the person is still under restraint. While "restraint" commonly refers to imprisonment, the definition has been expanded in Texas to include some other effects of a conviction such as probation. In fact, the final conviction itself may meet the restraint requirement because it can be used to increase punishment for a subsequent offense.

It is also important to note that habeas corpus is generally limited to constitutional claims such as suppression or failure to disclose evidence, a conviction based on perjured testimony, ineffective assistance of counsel, the use of an involuntary or coerced confession or jury misconduct or bias.

Petitions for writs of habeas corpus may be filed in both state and federal court. Although federal courts may be more sympathetic to habeas corpus claims than state courts, federal writs must be filed within one year of a conviction becoming final. In Texas a state writ may be filed at any time after your conviction is final, but the court could dismiss your application under the doctrine of laches, which basically asserts that the claim has unreasonably delayed.

Petitioning for a writ of habeas corpus is often the last chance a wrongly convicted person has to overturn the charges against them. Because of this it is vital to be represented by attorneys with the skill and experience to navigate this complicated area of law. In a recent Texas case, Parnham and McWilliams have convinced a judge to vacate a first-degree felony conviction based on unfounded charges of sexual assault after petitioning for and acquiring a writ of habeas corpus in the case. 

If you have been accused of a crime, contact Parnham & McWilliams today at (713) 224-3967 or click here for our convenient online submission form. Depending on the circumstances, we have many options in mounting a strong defense for you, and we will work tirelessly to ensure the best possible outcome for your case.