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A Florida Criminal Defense Attorney’s Guide to Extraordinary Writs

Extraordinary writs are invaluable tools for a criminal defense attorney in Florida. While they may not often come up in practice, need arises often enough that it pays to be familiar with them and their uses.  Extraordinary writs in Florida are legal instruments that provide a means for the courts to exercise jurisdiction in unique circumstances, typically when no other adequate remedy exists. These writs allow higher courts to review decisions of lower courts or government officials, usually on matters of jurisdiction, duty, or constitutional rights. The primary extraordinary writs in Florida include Habeas Corpus, Mandamus, Prohibition, Quo Warranto, and Certiorari. Each serves a specific purpose and should be used in the appropriate circumstance.

Habeas Corpus

The writ of Habeas Corpus, meaning "you shall have the body" in Latin, is used to address unlawful detention or imprisonment. It allows a person held in custody to petition a court to review the legality of their detention. If the court finds the detention to be unlawful, it can order the release of the detained person. This writ is a critical safeguard against illegal imprisonment and ensures that individuals' rights are not infringed upon without due process.


Mandamus, from the Latin for "we command," is a writ issued by a higher court to a lower court, government official, or public authority, compelling them to perform a duty they are legally obligated to complete. It is used when there is a clear legal right for the petitioner, a corresponding duty for the respondent, and no other adequate remedy. Mandamus cannot be used to alter discretion; it only applies to duties that are ministerial and defined by law.


The writ of Prohibition is employed to prevent a lower court from exceeding its jurisdiction or to halt proceedings in a case that is not within its jurisdiction. Essentially, it is used to command a lower court to cease legal action in a particular case. This writ ensures that lower courts do not overstep their legal boundaries, maintaining the proper administration of justice within the judicial hierarchy.

Quo Warranto

Quo Warranto, meaning "by what warrant" in Latin, is a writ used to challenge the authority of a person or entity acting in a public office or corporate capacity. It questions the legal right by which the office is held or the corporate actions are undertaken. This writ is particularly useful in cases where usurpation, misappropriation, or abuse of public office is in question, ensuring that only those lawfully entitled hold public or corporate offices.


Certiorari is a writ issued by a higher court to review a lower court's decision, usually when there are no other means of appeal. It is discretionary, meaning the higher court can choose whether or not to review the case. The writ of Certiorari is primarily used to address issues where it appears that the lower court may have made a judicial error, or there is a significant question of law that needs clarification. It ensures that justice is served by allowing for oversight and correction of potential judicial mistakes.

All Writs Jurisdiction

The Florida Supreme Court, along with the district courts of appeal and circuit courts, holds a constitutional mandate that extends beyond issuing standard writs. This mandate, known as the all writs jurisdiction, authorizes these courts to issue "all" or "other necessary writs" to support the full scope of their judicial powers. However, this broad authority is carefully bounded; a court cannot leverage it to intervene in matters outside its jurisdiction or where it will not possess jurisdiction over the dispute.

A practical illustration of this power in action is when the Florida Supreme Court exercised its all writs jurisdiction in response to a petition from the Criminal Rules Committee of The Florida Bar. The court temporarily halted the deadlines outlined in the rules and statutes for filing postconviction DNA testing motions. This pause allowed the court time to deliberate on the statute's constitutionality. By employing its all writs jurisdiction, the court effectively issued a constitutional stay, preserving the current legal conditions while it explored the significant constitutional issues at hand.

Application and Significance

These extraordinary writs play a vital role in the Florida judicial system by providing mechanisms for oversight, correction, and enforcement of legal duties and rights. They are particularly important in safeguarding individual rights, maintaining the separation of powers, and ensuring the proper administration of justice. They are excellent tools for any criminal defense lawyer to protect their clients’ rights. While they are extraordinary remedies, reserved for circumstances where usual legal processes are inadequate, their existence underscores the flexibility and adaptability of the law in addressing unique and pressing legal issues.

By: Sean Clayton, Esq.