State and Federal Writs for Habeas Corpus, Generally Explained by Leading Criminal Appeals Lawyer

The writ of habeas corpus, or the “Great Writ” as it is also known, is a powerful tool. The writ of habeas corpus calls for the review of an individual’s incarceration, requiring the government to justify why it is holding someone in custody. When properly used, a writ of habeas corpus can compel the release of an inmate. However, as powerful as the Great Writ is, it is also commonly misunderstood. These misunderstandings can often result in inmates improperly filing for habeas relief, possibly risking proper review in the future. In the post, leading California criminal appeals lawyer explains: (1) what a Writ of Habeas Corpus is; (2) the differences between state and federal writs of Habeas Corpus, and (3) the requirements of Exhausting your state legal remedies.

What Is a Writ of Habeas Corpus?

Simply put, a writ of habeas corpus calls into question the continued incarceration of an individual. Thus, aside from direct appeal relief, a petition for writ of habeas corpus is another important way for inmates to challenge their conviction or sentence. However, unlike an appeal, a writ of habeas corpus does not give a petitioner the chance to relitigate their case. Writs of habeas corpus are limited to situations in which someone is incarcerated due to an incorrect application of law or newly present circumstances justifying their release.

The Difference Between State and Federal Writs of Habeas Corpus

Writs of habeas corpus can be filed in state or federal court. A state-court writ of habeas corpus is brought pursuant to California law, whereas a federal writ is brought under prevailing federal law.

To bring an application for a California writ of habeas corpus, an individual must meet the following criteria:

  • They must be in custody, on probation or parole, released on bail, or on house arrest;
  • They must have exhausted their other remedies, such as a direct appeal; and
  • The issues raised in the applicant cannot have been already resolved on appeal.

It is important to remember that a writ of habeas corpus is not another appeal. It is an entirely different proceeding that takes place after an appeal. In California, there is no strict timeline requiring when an application for a writ of habeas corpus must be filed; however, the law requires a petitioner to bring all claims in a “timely” manner.

Federal writs of habeas corpus are quite different in several ways. The United States Constitution provides states significant rights in handling their own affairs. This includes creating and enforcing criminal laws and developing appellate procedures.  Thus, federal courts will generally defer to states on issues involving state law. However, federal law sets a “floor” in terms of individual rights, and a state cannot provide citizens fewer rights than conferred by the federal government.

Federal writs of habeas corpus can be filed in various situations. However, the most commonly filed writ is one challenging a state judgment. Given that the federal government defers to states for the most part, a federal court will only grant an application for a writ of habeas corpus in certain “extraordinary” circumstances. There are two situations in which a federal court will grant a writ of habeas corpus based on a state court judgment:

  1. The state court decision was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or
  2. The state court decision was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding.

Thus, only claims arising under federal law or the U.S. Constitution can be brought in a federal habeas petition. However, alleged violations of the Fourth Amendment (i.e., motions to suppress evidence or statements) are not cognizable claims in a federal habeas petition.

The “Exhaustion” Requirement

Before a federal court will consider an applicant’s petition for writ of habeas corpus, the applicant must exhaust their state remedies. This goes back to the deference federal court afford to state courts; if the state court wasn’t given the opportunity to weigh in on the applicant’s issues, the federal court will not intervene for fear of infringing on the state’s rights. Requiring an applicant pursue their state remedies first also results in a more developed factual record for the federal court to review.

Exhausting state remedies requires an inmate “fairly present” each of their claims to the state court, either on appeal or through an application for a writ of habeas corpus filed in state court. More specifically, an applicant must explain both the facts and the legal basis of each claim. Additionally, to fully exhaust state court remedies, an applicant needs to pursue all levels of appeal or post-conviction relief, up to the state supreme court. Finally, an inmate must exhaust each claim in a federal habeas petition, otherwise, the court will dismiss the entire petition—even those claims which were exhausted.

Not only must an applicant exhaust their state remedies before seeking federal review through an application for a writ of habeas corpus, but they must also bring their federal application within the applicable statute of limitations. Under current law, an applicant has just one year to file their federal habeas petition from the date they exhausted their state-court remedies. While there are exceptions to this general rule, most cases must be brought within this timeframe. However, determining when the statute of limitations to file a federal writ begins is challenging, and, in practice, applicants walk a fine line between filing premature applications and untimely ones.

Learn More About Federal Writs of Habeas Corpus and How to Use Them Effectively

If you are currently serving a lengthy sentence of incarceration, contact Power Trial Lawyers to discuss your case with an experienced California criminal appeals lawyer. Attorney Matthew Barhoma, the founder of Power Trial Lawyers, has successfully secured the release of several clients through various means of post-conviction relief, including applications for writs of habeas corpus. Power Trial Lawyers, P.C. will review records and determine best stratgies, including arguments set for on Petitions for a Writ of Habeas Corpus. To learn more about federal and/or state writs of habeas corpus and to schedule a free consultation with an attorney with Power Trial Lawyers, P.C. call us at 213-800-7664.

Justia Lawyer Rating
State Bar of California
The National Trial Lawyers Top 40 under 40
The National Trial Lawyers, Top 100 trial lawyers
Best Lawyers
Lawyers of Distinction
Super Lawyers
Super Lawyers Rising Stars
Contact Information