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What is Habeas Corpus?

The law is filled with confusing terminology and Latin phrases. When you’ve been charged with a crime, it can be very difficult to figure out what it all means.

One term you may hear as you explore your legal options in response to criminal charges is habeas corpus. What is a habeas corpus motion in Pennsylvania state court, and when should you file one? (If you’re looking for information on federal habeas corpus relief, we’ll deal with that in a later article).

It all starts at the preliminary hearing…

What happens when the government of Pennsylvania charges you with a crime? First, you’re going to have a preliminary arraignment and a preliminary hearing (usually on two different dates). The preliminary hearing is, in some ways, the first step of a successful habeas corpus petition. At the preliminary hearing before a Magisterial District Judge, you’re going to have the opportunity to hear the evidence against you placed “on the record.” The police officer who charged you will testify along with any witnesses that he thinks are relevant to establishing why he had probable cause to bring charges against you in the first place. If the prosecution is successful in proving that the charges are based on probable cause, then the matter will be “bound over” to the Court of Common Pleas.

Once the case is “bound over” to the Court of Common Pleas, you will have a limited amount of time to request discovery (a copy of the prosecution and police case file against you), and then to file a habeas corpus motion.

Habeas corpus is Latin, and it literally means, “Do you have the body?” Habeas corpus has been called “The Great Writ” because it was one of the most important rights of the ancient world. Today, what it means is that you have the right to demand that the government explain why it is holding you on charges. If the government cannot justify its charges to a court, then you have to be released. Habeas corpus, in other words, is a petition that asks the court to completely dismiss the charges against you over the Prosecutor’s objection.

Should you file a habeas corpus motion?

So, why not file a habeas corpus motion, you might ask. A habeas corpus petition is a strategic measure. It’s the appropriate motion to file only when you believe that the government does not have any case against you even if the evidence they present is accepted as true. For example, where you present a successful motion to suppress evidence of your possession of a drug, and there is no evidence left to proceed with, a habeas corpus motion can allow you to finish off the charges. In other cases, where a key witness is likely not to testify (where they plead the 5th amendment to avoid their own prosecution, for example), a habeas corpus motion can successfully force the issue and have the case withdrawn.

But a habeas corpus motion is not the right tool for all situations. Habeas corpus will not succeed if the government has a case against you, but you simply don’t believe it’s enough to convict you beyond a reasonable doubt. A habeas corpus motion is what you file to challenge the government to produce its evidence in court. It can slow down the process of ultimately adjudicating your guilt or innocence. In many situations, you want your day in court as soon as possible, and a habeas corpus motion may actually delay that. In addition, if you waive your preliminary hearing, you almost certainly give up your right to a habeas corpus petition.

Conclusion

In short, whether to file a Habeas Corpus motion in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to dismiss your criminal charges is a decision you should only make in consultation with an experienced Criminal Defense Attorney. Call the Cornerstone Law Firm today so that we can help you to determine whether a Habeas Corpus Petition is right for you, or whether you should defend your action in another way.