428 U.S. 465 (1976), argued 24 Feb. 1976, decided 6 July 1976 by vote of 6 to 3; Powell for the Court, Burger concurring, Brennan, joined by Marshall and White in dissent. By an act of Congress (Title 28, sec. 2254 of the U.S. Code), state prisoners may petition a federal court for a writ of habeas corpus and challenge the constitutionality of their state convictions. Generally, a party may not relitigate a matter already presented to or decided by a court. In Brown v. Allen (1953), however, the Court had held that under section 2254 a state prisoner was entitled to a federal court hearing on all federal constitutional issues.
Writing for the majority in Stone v. Powell, Justice Lewis Powell reevaluated this interpretation of the statute and held that Fourth Amendment claims once raised and decided in state court could not be heard again in the federal habeas corpus proceeding when the state had provided an opportunity for a full and fair hearing. Applying a cost/benefit analysis, Powell argued that the marginal additional deterrence against police misconduct was insufficient to justify excluding evidence and allowing a guilty defendant to go free. This would only undermine respect for the criminal justice system. Concerns for finality and federalism buttressed his conclusion.
The dissenters disagreed. Habeas corpus, they maintained, protects rights of all persons, including the guilty. Lifetime-tenured federal judges are better situated than state judges to vindicate constitutional rights. Finally, separation of powers considerations weighed against reinterpreting the long-standing statutory language.
While habeas corpus remains an important constitutional provision for those convicted of a crime, the Supreme Court under the leadership of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist has significantly narrowed access to it in areas beyond the Fourth Amendment. For example, in Herrera v. Collins (1993) the justices found that a belated claim of innocence, made through a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, does not ordinarily entitle a death-row inmate to a new federal court hearing before being executed. In its push, therefore, to bring finality to the process of administering the death penalty, a majority of the Court has adopted a view similar to what it has taken in Fourth Amendment cases such as Stone.
Thomas E. Baker