What Is The Legal Definition Of “Habeas Corpus?”

Anyone who went through a public education has heard the phrase “Habeas Corpus.” Maybe you even have a basic idea of what it means to “suspend” Habeas Corpus. Most of us forget, though. Here, you can relearn what you might not remember — and learn what you might never have been taught.

Habeas Corpus is a Latin phrase that translates literally “you have the body.” The legal definition of “Habeas Corpus” according to Cornell’s Legal Information Institute is this: “In the US system, federal courts can use the writ of habeas corpus to determine if a state’s detention of a prisoner is valid. A writ of habeas corpus is used to bring a prisoner or other detainee (e.g. institutionalized mental patient) before the court to determine if the person’s imprisonment or detention is lawful.”

In other words, Habeas Corpus is a constitutional right to only lawful imprisonment, and protects against unlawful imprisonment.

What does it mean to suspend Habeas Corpus? President Lincoln is famous for having done so. President George W. Bush also suspended Habeas Corpus for suspects of terrorism. Doing so meant that he could detain suspects of terrorism indefinitely (even forever). The justification? We are protected for the greater good. Lincoln, on the other hand, suspended the right several times during the Civil War for mostly tactical reasons. It allowed Union military figures to summarily arrest individuals suspected of aiding and abetting the enemy without any real evidence.

These moves are always controversial.

Many individuals who are detained after a suspension of Habeas Corpus are released without trial. This adds to the controversy, because they would have been tried had they been guilty of a crime. 

Another aspect of the controversy revolves around which government entity has the right to suspend Habeas Corpus in the first place. Although presidents are famous for doing so, many believe that the right lies squarely in the hands of Congress. These arguments are ongoing.