What if I don't RETURN TO SENDER?
July 22, 2005 9:36 AM   Subscribe

If I open a piece of mail that was delivered to my house, but addressed to a former resident, is that, legally, "stealing mail" and thus a federal offense?

Assume that I haven't done anything shady to recieve this mail, and also assume that I don't really care about the "ethics" or "morals" of doing it.
posted by cmonkey to Law & Government (10 answers total)
Is this Findlaw reference relevant?
posted by dmd at 9:38 AM on July 22, 2005

Response by poster: Oh, and this is entirely hypothetical because I would never, ever come close to breaking a law for fun or profit.
posted by cmonkey at 9:38 AM on July 22, 2005

This will come in handy; my girlfriend has been getting statements for years for some organization at her address that is not there and never has been. She's tired of writing "Not at this address" and putting them back in the mailbox so now she simply pitches them in the garbage.

Some months ago I opened one before throwing it away and I thought she was gonna stroke out - "What are you doing? That's illegal!" to which I responded "More so than throwing it away?" Well, apparently not - the statute includes "destroys."
posted by phearlez at 10:27 AM on July 22, 2005

Best answer: It may or may not be stealing but it sure sounds like

TITLE 18 > PART I > CHAPTER 83 > § 1702. Obstruction of correspondence

Whoever takes any letter, postal card, or package out of any post office or any authorized depository for mail matter, or from any letter or mail carrier, or which has been in any post office or authorized depository, or in the custody of any letter or mail carrier, before it has been delivered to the person to whom it was directed, with design to obstruct the correspondence, or to pry into the business or secrets of another, or opens, secretes, embezzles, or destroys the same, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.

Emphasis added.
posted by mzurer at 10:29 AM on July 22, 2005

Is it the envelope that determines to whom a piece of mail is directed, or the contents? I recently received an envelope, from a medical group where I was formerly a patient. I ripped open the envelope, which contained a lab order for tests. The name on the order (and on the envelope, when I looked) was similar to mine. The other woman's birthdate was on the form, but there was no other identifying information. I called the doctor's office to tell them about the mix-up, and they told me to destroy the form, they would send out another one to the right person. Did I inadvertently break the law by opening the envelope? What if the other woman had had exactly the same name as me?
posted by Joleta at 11:03 AM on July 22, 2005

I once had a neighbor on house arrest who would steal my mail and order pornos in my name. When I contacted the PO about it, they said that unless I had actually seen him take the mail, there was nothing they could do. Unless my loss began to get close to $10,000, they wouldn't get involved. I was in the process of planning a sting, when the guy moved somewhere else.
posted by Specklet at 11:10 AM on July 22, 2005

Best answer: I worked for the USPS in their law department last year, so I feel like I can offer a somewhat authoritative opinion. (I fielded questions like this all the time...)

While mzurer is technically right (it's a crime), the answer really depends on what you're planning on doing with the mail. If you're going to, for example, steal a check that's inside, that's clearly illegal. But if you're opening it to find out how to notify the sender that they have the wrong address, you need not worry about spending time in federal prison.

Basically, unless you're doing something shady with the contents, the USPS and the postal inspectors have better things to do with their time than prosecute you. But if it's a moral dilemma you're facing, it is technically illegal...
posted by elquien at 11:12 AM on July 22, 2005

I think, elquien, the part mzurer should have emphasized was "with design to obstruct the correspondence, or to pry into the business or secrets of another".
posted by Doohickie at 7:06 PM on July 22, 2005

With what other reason could you intentionally read my mail than to pry into my business or secrets?
posted by grouse at 12:48 AM on July 23, 2005

I fail to see the problem. If the mail is not addressed to you then you shouldn't open. The mail is not for you.
posted by Kilovolt at 1:13 AM on July 23, 2005

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