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What Does Habeas Corpus Mean?

Hammer and gavel
Habeas Corpus is Latin for 'you have a body.'

Habeas Corpus (Latin for ‘you have a body’) is an important right many probably haven’t heard of. Especially since it hasn’t been challenged in over twenty years, but it’s one of the key rights that we have in America. 

What does Habeas Corpus mean?

In short, Habeas Corpus is the process of determining if the detention of a person taken into custody is lawful. The detainee will be brought before the court, which will then examine the case. If the detention is unlawful, then the warden (or whoever detained the person) is held liable, usually through civil action. Not only does Habeas Corpus apply to criminal detention, but also wrongful detention through ICE (the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement).

Habeas Corpus and the Constitution

The Habeas Corpus procedure, known as a writ of Habeas Corpus, can be found in the Suspension Clause in Article I of the United States Constitution.

While the phrase ‘unlawful detention’ makes the process sound like a criminal procedure, a violation of Habeas Corpus is a civil matter. A state or other governing body will typically compensate the wronged party with a sum of money instead of securing a conviction against the people who unlawfully detained them.

To claim unlawful detention, the plaintiff (the person who claims to have been falsely imprisoned) must prove that:

  1. They were detained somewhere without being allowed to leave (often called wilful detention).
  2. That they did not consent to this detention.
  3. That the detention was unlawful.

Origins of Habeas Corpus

Habeas Corpus originated through the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. This document greatly limited the British King’s power. The 39th clause, in particular, stated that the King could not arrest people unless they were determined by the courts (and a jury) to have broken some kind of law.

The Bill Of RIghts
The Bill of Rights incorporated Habeas Corpus into the United States Constitution.

But it wasn’t until the 17th century that Britain began applying this principle to authorities other than the King. The Magna Carta was originally designed to limit mostly the King’s power instead of any specific authorities. However, said authorities were also unfairly detaining people and breaching their human rights. It then became the King’s responsibility to enforce his subject’s right to Habeas Corpus.

Fast forward to the creation of the United States, and the Founding Fathers (who had previously lived under British tyranny) adopted a similar philosophy. Habeas Corpus was officially incorporated into the United States Constitution through the Bill of Rights.

What Are Some Examples of False Imprisonment?

While we mostly think of unlawful imprisonment as someone being wrongfully arrested, anyone can unlawfully detain another. Some examples would be if you were locked in a room with no way to leave, if someone grabbed you and refused to let you go to keep you from leaving, or if a store owner detains someone without probable cause or detains them for an unreasonable period of time.

Habeas Corpus does not apply to someone who was found not guilty of a crime, nor does it apply to a situation where you know an alternate route of escape.

For example, if you were held in a room or building, but were aware of an alternate exit, the argument could be made that you’re not being unlawfully detained. However, if this alternate exit is being blocked or if the person is refusing to let you through the exit, this would be considered unlawful imprisonment.

When Is an Imprisonment Considered Lawful?

Typically, the police can detain someone if they have probable cause (if they believe the person broke the law, for example). As previously noted, detention can still be considered lawful, even if a defendant is later determined to be innocent. 

It should also be stated that an erroneous arrest is not unlawful. Even if it is determined that the defendant was arrested on faulty evidence, it doesn’t constitute false imprisonment. However, an individual who fabricates a statement or evidence can be arrested for making false statements.

Another example of lawful imprisonment would be shopkeepers holding a person for questioning. Many states allow a business owner to question a person if they believe they might be guilty of stealing. They’re only allowed to detain the suspect long enough for the shop owner to ascertain their identity, question them about the potentially stolen goods, and wait for the proper authorities to show up.

Finally, a citizen’s arrest would also be considered lawful imprisonment. If a bystander sees someone committing a crime, they have the right to detain that person until the authorities arrive. While the citizen is technically ‘arresting’ the suspect, it should be noted that citizen’s arrests are not supposed to serve as a replacement for law enforcement.

Why Do We Have the Right of Habeas Corpus?

Aside from the above examples of protecting from shop owners, Habeas Corpus also protects citizens from being arrested by the government for criticizing them or doing anything else they don’t like. It is the backbone for our due process laws. Now, the courts have to prove that a person committed a crime and that they were arrested in a lawful matter. Without this right, there would be little protection for people who had been arrested.

Can It Be Taken Away?

While, for the most part, Habeas Corpus cannot be taken away, it’s written in the Suspension Clause that Habeas Corpus can be suspended in acts of ‘Rebellion or Invasion.’ It’s typically understood that only Congress can vote to suspend this right, but Abraham Lincoln suspended Habeas Corpus without their vote during the Civil War.

Abraham Lincoln
President Abraham Lincoln suspended Habeas Corpus during the Civil War.

Habeas Corpus was last suspended after the September 11 attacks in 2001.

The Writ of Habeas Corpus

While we don’t have to worry about the government throwing political dissidents in jail anymore, we should still be grateful and knowledgeable of our protections against unlawful detention through the writ of Habeas Corpus. It keeps the government and the average person from ‘arresting’ you for no particular reason. This right to due process is important, and we should always keep it in mind when going about our lives.

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