Lopez v. Davis

LOCATION:Los Angeles City Hall

DOCKET NO.: 99-7504
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 531 US 230 (2001)
ARGUED: Oct 30, 2000
DECIDED: Jan 10, 2001

Beth S. Brinkmann – Department of Justice, argued the cause for the respondents
Mark V. Meierhenry – Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Congress has provided the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) with the statutory authority to reduce the prison term of an inmate convicted of a nonviolent felony by up to one year, if the prisoner successfully completes a substance abuse program. The BOP’s implementing regulation categorically denies early release to prisoners whose offense is a felony attended by “the carrying, possession, or use of a firearm.” In 1997, Christopher A. Lopez was convicted of possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine. Additionally, the court found that Lopez possessed a firearm in connection with his offense. While incarcerated, Lopez requested substance abuse treatment. The BOP found Lopez qualified for its residential drug abuse program, but was found him categorically ineligible for early release. The District Court, in ordering the BOP to reconsider Lopez for early release, held that the BOP may not, based on weapons possession, categorically count out inmates, whose underlying conviction was for a nonviolent crime. The Court of Appeals reversed.


Does the Bureau of Prisons have the authority to categorically deny consideration for eligibility for early release to inmates convicted of non-violent offenses after they have completed substance abuse programs?

Media for Lopez v. Davis

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – October 30, 2000 in Lopez v. Davis

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – January 10, 2001 in Lopez v. Davis

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in Lopez against Davis will be announced by Justice Ginsburg.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Congress has authorized the Bureau of Prisons to reduce by up to one year, the prison term of an inmate who successfully completes a Drug Abuse Program.

Congress specified however, that only inmates convicted of non-violent felonies are eligible for this dispensation.

The Bureau’s implementing regulation places several class of prisoners in the ineligible category among them, prisoners whose current offence is a felony attended by the carrying possession or use of a firearm.

The question presented in this case, when the offense of conviction is non-violent, drug distribution for example, is the Bureau’s exclusion of firearms carriers from consideration for early release a permissible exercise of the discretion Congress lodged in the Bureau?

Our answer is yes, and we therefore affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Eighth circuit.

Petitioner Christopher Lopez was convicted of the Federal offence of possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute the drug.

His sentence was elevated two levels, pursuant to the applicable sentencing guideline because he possessed a firearm in connection with his drug offence.

In prison, Lopez requested substance abuse treatment, the Bureau found him eligible for the treatment program, but ineligible for early release because of his firearm carriage.

Lopez petition for a writ of habeas corpus, challenging the Bureau regulation that categorically denied early release to all inmates whose offense involved possession of a dangerous weapon.

The District Court granted Lopez’s his petition, but the Eighth Circuit reversed, holding that the Bureau’s denial of early release, the firearm carriage was a permissible exercise of the desecration Congress entrusted to the Bureau.

Lopez urged that all prisoner convicted of non-violence crimes who successfully complete Drug Abuse Programs qualify under the governing statute were individualized early release determinations.

He further urges that in making individualized determinations the Bureau may take into account only postconviction conduct not preconviction conduct, here, carrying a dangerous weapon in connection with the commission of an offence.

The controlling statute, as we read it, gives the Bureau discretion to grant or deny a sentence reduction upon successful completion of a Drug Treatment Program and leaves open the manner in which that discretion is to be exercised.

Under the guiding precedent declared in the Chevron case where Congress has enacted a law that does not answer the precise question at hand there is, but, one question for the Court to decide, in this case whether the Bureau, the Agency empowered to administer the early release program, has filled the statutory gap in a reasonable manner.

We hold that the Bureau acted reasonably, both in ruling categorically and in making preconviction conduct, here gun carriage, the Bureau need not to blind itself to preconviction conduct that the agency reasonably views as jeopardizing life and limb, and even when a statutory scheme requires individualized determinations, which this scheme in our judgment does not, the decision maker may relay on rule making to resolve occurring issues that may be settled fairly and efficiently that way.

The case-by-case consideration, Lopez seeks we note as applied in diverse prisons across the country in thousands of cases each year, could invite favoritism, disunity and inconsistency.

In sum, we hold that the Bureau reasonably determined by regulation that an inmate’s prior involvement with firearms in connection with the commission of a felony suggest his readiness to resort to life endangering violence and therefore appropriately marks him ineligible for early release.

Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion in which the Chief Justice and Justice Kennedy joined.