Howe v. Smith
452 U.S. 473 (1981)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Howe v. Smith, 452 U.S. 473 (1981)

Howe v. Smith

No. 80-5392

Argued April 28, 1981

Decided June 17, 1981

452 U.S. 473

Syllabus

Title 18 U.S.C. § 5003(a) authorizes the Attorney General to contract with a state "for the custody, care, subsistence, education, treatment, and training of persons convicted of criminal offenses in the courts of such State," when the Director of the United States Bureau of Prisons certifies that proper and adequate federal "treatment facilities and personnel are available." Petitioner was convicted in a Vermont state court of first-degree murder arising out of the rape and strangulation of an elderly woman. Since Vermont had previously closed its only maximum security prison, petitioner was assigned to a state prison having the capacity for short-term, but not long-term, incarceration of inmates with high security needs, and it was recommended, because of the nature of his offense ,that he be transferred to a federal prison. A hearing was held before the Vermont Department of Corrections at which it was determined that petitioner was a high security risk, and, ultimately, under a contract between Vermont and the United States, petitioner was transferred to the federal prison system pursuant to § 5003(a). Subsequently, petitioner filed an action in Federal District Court, challenging his transfer on the ground that the federal officials lacked statutory authority to accept custody. He claimed that § 5003(a) requires federal authorities to make an individual determination that each state prisoner transferred to the federal system needs a particular specialized treatment program available in that system, and that no such determination had been made in his case. The District Court denied petitioner's request for relief, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: Section 5003(a) authorizes a transfer of a state prisoner to the federal system such as occurred in this case. Pp. 452 U. S. 479-487.

(a) Section 5003(a)'s plain language authorizes contracts not simply for treatment, but also for custody, care, subsistence, education, and training of state prisoners in federal facilities. The requirement for certification by the Director of the Bureau of Prisons is simply a housekeeping measure designed to ensure that the federal system has the capacity to absorb the state prisoners. Nothing in § 5003(a)'s language restricts or limits the use of federal prison facilities to those

Page 452 U. S. 474

state prisoners who are in need of some particular treatment. Pp. 452 U. S. 480-482.

(b) Section 5003's legislative history reveals that it was enacted to deal with the simple and practical problem of permitting states to transfer their prisoners to federal custody in the same way that the Federal Government had, for some time, been placing prisoners in state custody pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 4002. And nothing in the legislative history makes this case one of the "rare and exceptional cases" requiring a departure from the statute's plain language. Pp. 452 U. S. 483-485.

(c) The contemporaneous and uniform construction of § 5003(a) by the Bureau of Prisons, the agency that proposed its enactment and is charged with its administration, has been that the statute authorizes contracts based on a broad range of purposes, including such a transfer as is shown by the record in this case. In the absence of any evidence of congressional objection, the agency's interpretation must be given great weight. Pp. 452 U. S. 485-487.

625 F.2d 454, affirmed.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 452 U. S. 487. STEWART, J., filed a dissenting statement, post, p. 452 U. S. 487.

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