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Rant/FAQ: What is "habeas corpus" and how does violating it discourage & demonize dissent?

"Habeas corpus" is Latin for "you have the body". It is a Constitutional concept, meaning that if you arrest & detain someone, you have a certain amount of time to charge them, and that if you don't do so within that time, the person or people must be released. A eoman from the National Lawyers Guild in NYC stated that this period is 24 hours in the state and City of NY.

A writ of habeas corpus is presented to a court on behalf of a detainee or detainees. The writ issued by the National Lawyer's Guild to the City of NY, demanding the release of all RNC detainees, can be read here.

The City's excuse for violating habeas corpus was that it couldn't release people until the proper paperwork was done. As reported on indymedia, a NY Judge ordered the City to release hundreds of people because they had been held so long (24-30 or more hours), but the City has not been complying.

NYC is not the first city to ignore habeas corpus; indeed, it is a tactic, consciously executed, as part of a national trend toward fascism.

Legally, the writ of habeas corpus -- though never completely honored in all times and places in U.S. history -- is an essential stone in the foundation of civil liberties. Like many Constitutional concepts, it was included as a check on government power, to protect civilian freedom. Left to its own devices, government at all levels tends toward authoritarianism.

A lawyer reporting to A-Noise Radio from in front of the Criminal Court at 100 Centre St. in NYC minced no words in describing the City's behavior and motives. He stated that the City's mass round-ups, followed by its insolence in ignoring orders to release, were intended to keep protesters off the street until after pResident Bush's speech on Thursday night. It's not as if the City doesn't know its actions are unconstitutional or illegal; rather, it is a strategic choice for exerting dominance in the moment. When that moment passes, people can be released and charges dropped, usually with no apology.

We've seen such trashing of habeas corpus by municipalities before, in Seattle '99, Philly 2000, LA 2000, Sacramento 2003, Miami 2004, etc., etc., etc. (and all through U.S. history, really). Clearly, the purpose is to remove lawful dissenters from the streets, demoralize those still free, discourage others from joining in, and demonize protest in general.

Additionally, when mass arrests at a protest are reported by the corporate media (if they are reported at all), they are usually presented in such a way -- either implicitly or explicitly -- that the viewer/listener is led to believe that "they deserved it" or that the individuals were "trouble-makers" (even, or sometimes especially, when police violence such as beating or pepper-spraying was involved). Many factors explain this institutional bias in favor of police and against people -- at the reporter level, individuals not wanting to make waves with police contacts, self-censoring themselves for job preservation, or being just as brainwashed about reality as their viewers; and at the corporate level, an interlocking set of relationships among the owners of media, military-contracting, resource-extraction, prison-building, etc. -- but the level of entrenchment is now deep, past the point of reform, and prime motivation -- whether personal and unconscious or corporate and directed -- of preserving the status quo is undeniable.

This is sinister stuff, frankly. Thank heavens for the National Lawyers Guild and other legal folks/organizations who step up in these situations to help out. Without them, a lot of people would really be fucked. As legislation like the PATRIOT ACT is passed, however, there will be less and less for the lawyers to use to protect us. Regardless of who's (s)elected in November, we've got cause to worry.

As i was writing this story, the news broke that a judge had found the city In Contempt, for not releasing people, and was levying a fine of $1000 per person for everyone who was not yet out but should've been. This event definitely opens up the City to having a civil suit brought against it for unlawful detention, etc., too. So, is this likely to discourage the City from trampling habeas corpus again, or did the City take the possible financial risk into account and do it anyway? Does the value of squashing dissent and creating a climate of fear outweigh the monetary costs? Perhaps, in the authoritarian equations of the powers-that-be, it does.


[ More info at 'Lectric Law Library on habeas corpus ]

Make it cost them something 02.Sep.2004 18:36


thanks for the post i heard from someone in NY that the fine is $1000 per person per hour.

"$1000 per person per hour" 02.Sep.2004 22:32

Tony Blair's dog

Make it $100.000 per person per hour and the
police departments will definitely make sure
that they also follow the law.

Habeas Corpus predates the Constitution 03.Sep.2004 00:46


Over 100 years to the Habeas Corpus act of 1679. It also traces back to the Magna Carta in 1215.

According to Article I Section 9 of the Constitution:
The Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.

It was most notably suspended by Abraham Lincoln (that first famous Republican) at the start of the Civil War. He used it the suspension to throw seccessionist in jail for the duration of the war. In particular, he threw seccessionist legislators in Maryland in jail to prevent Maryland from secceding from the Union (and putting Washington, DC in enemy territory). When the US Supreme Court objected, Lincoln threatened to lock them up to. He later expelled the jailed legislators into Virginia.

Let us hope that George W (and his advisors) haven't learned from history (they haven't seemed to so far).