Legalese — Habeas Corpus

Habeas Corpus is one of those legal terms that most people seem to have heard of at some point, but can’t quite define.  They know it has something to do with someone being arrested, and they don’t want to be, or think they shouldn’t.  But exactly what does it mean?

Literally, it translates from the Latin as “that you have the body.”  A “writ” of habeas corpus is petition that you bring to the Court that essentially says, “You have possession of my body, and you shouldn’t have for the following legal reasons.”

In Georgia, Habeas Corpus is discussed in O.C.G.A. 9-14-41.  According to that code section, habeas is open to “[a]ny person imprisoned by virtue of a sentence imposed by a state court of record who asserts that in the proceedings which resulted in his conviction there was a substantial denial of his rights under the Constitution of the United States or of this state.”

What that means is that habeas is different from an appeal – an appeal can be based on any number of legal grounds.  But a habeas petition can only be brought if a constitutional right has been substantially violated.  It is arguable, of course, that any violation of a constitutional right is substantial, that saying otherwise is like saying “a little light treason.” However, due to the rules of statutory construction, we have to assume that the legislature included the word “substantial” for a reason.

Unlike appeals, which generally can only be filed within 30 days of the judgment, habeas petitions have to be filed within one year, in the case of a misdemeanor, or four years, in the case of a felony.  Death penalty cases have their own set of rules.

There are some exceptions, such as a newly recognized right by the Courts or the date on which facts supporting the habeas petition could have been discovered.  So, for example, say you find out 18 months after your conviction that the lineup from which you were selected had a picture of you, four random guys, and a picture of the victim’s cousin.  You don’t know the victim’s cousin, so you would have no way of knowing he was in the line up, so that wouldn’t start the time clock ticking until you had enough information to find out about it.

Habeas procedures are technical and difficult, and more so than many other procedures are difficult to win without the assistance of an attorney, so be sure to seek advice before you try to hedge your future bets on your ability to figure it out yourself.

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice.  It is being offered for informational purposes only.  No lawyer can advise you about your situation without hearing the particular details of you case.

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