What must I do with misdirected mail?
September 23, 2016 1:27 PM   Subscribe

In the US, what is my specific legal duty when I receive postal (USPS) mail that was not intended for me? Ethics are another question; I'm just curious about the legal requirements.

Consider the following scenarios.
  1. I receive a piece of junk mail for a previous resident of my house.
  2. I receive what looks like an important document for a previous resident of my house.
  3. I receive what looks like an important document for the previous renter of my private mailbox.
  4. I receive what looks like an important document for someone I've never heard of.
  5. Replace "important document" with "package" in all scenarios above.
In which (if any) of these cases am I legally allowed to dispose of the mail? Does timing have an impact (e.g. is it different to receive mail for someone who moved out 2 weeks ago vs. someone who moved five years ago)? In the cases (if any) in which I'm not allowed to dispose of the mail, what is the minimum I'm legally required to do? Is writing "return to sender" and putting it in a random mailbox sufficient?
posted by primethyme to Law & Government (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I should add, assume in all of these scenarios that the address on the mail is my address (not that the mail carrier just accidentally put it in the wrong box or something).
posted by primethyme at 1:32 PM on September 23, 2016

My understanding is that anything received for someone who no longer lives at your address should be marked "not at this address" and put back in your mailbox for the postal carrier. That said, in real life if it's just junk mail (postcards and glossy ads) I toss it. If it's in an envelope, though, back in the mail it goes.
posted by MsMolly at 1:46 PM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Is It Illegal to Open Someone Else's Mail?, by Brett Snider, Esq:

Under federal law, it is illegal to intentionally stop a letter from being delivered to its intended recipient, and that may include not informing the U.S. Postal Service that you have another person's mail. While U.S. Postal Inspectors aren't likely to hunt you down for throwing away mail addressed to a previous tenant -- especially if it's spam -- you should keep in mind that it is a federal crime to intentionally destroy another person's mail.

Simply write "Return to Sender" or "Wrong Address" on the mail not addressed to you and put it in your nearest mailbox.

- See more at: http://blogs.findlaw.com/blotter/2014/01/is-it-illegal-to-open-someone-elses-mail.html#sthash.jhRu2m6E.dpuf

Also see 18 U.S.C. § 1701 : US Code - Section 1701: Obstruction of mails generally:

"Whoever knowingly and willfully obstructs or retards the passage of the mail, or any carrier or conveyance carrying the mail, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than six months, or both."
posted by GuyZero at 1:49 PM on September 23, 2016 [5 favorites]

Section 1702 may apply too.
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.
I doubt anyone's actually getting prosecuted if they don't write "no such resident" on first class envelopes and send them back, but depending on what the legal definition of some of the above words actually are (IANAL), it might be illegal.

3rd class/junk mail is just going to get shredded so I don't bother, but anything else I'm going to write "no such resident" and stick it back in the mailbox.
posted by Candleman at 1:55 PM on September 23, 2016

You are talking about misaddressed mail, which means the person it is intended for is not reachable at that address. Misdelivered mail is mail that is addressed to e.g. 123 Elm st., but came to your box at 132 Elm st.

The distinction is important, because while your obligations for misdelivered mail are more clearly defined, the circuit courts of the USA have split on how to apply the law to misaddressed mail.

See U.S. v. Coleman and U.S.C. § 1708.

So at least in principle, it seems that you can be fined in violation of U.S.C. § 1708, if you destroy misaddressed mail, according to some circuit courts. IANAL, TINLA, YMMV
posted by SaltySalticid at 1:56 PM on September 23, 2016 [5 favorites]

Oh, during my searching I also found this excellent image of the postal police via a Snopes thread, too good not to share :)
posted by SaltySalticid at 2:02 PM on September 23, 2016 [5 favorites]

There will be important distinctions between things you are legally required to do because some statute or regulation at least arguably says so versus what you are legally required to do because someone who did that might ever in a billion years actually be prosecuted for. If you or an acquaintance have the necessary logins, I might search PACER for prosecutions under obstruction of the mail to see if someone had ever, in the history of the United States or at least as far back as PACER goes, been prosecuted for simply throwing away mail sent to a previous resident at that address.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:03 PM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: After many, many months of receiving mail (SO MUCH MAIL, mostly from collections agencies) for a previous tenant at my apartment, and many months of writing "NOT AT THIS ADDRESS" on them and dropping them back in the mail ONLY TO RECEIVE THEM AGAIN, I finally just started collecting them in a shopping bag. When it was nearly full, I took it to the Post Office and dumped everything in an unceremonious heap on the counter and said I didn't want to get another letter for so-and-so ever again.

And I didn't.

If I had it all to do over again, I would have taken the time out of my day on week one to go to my branch and sort it out then and there, rather than waste all that mental energy writing on dozens of envelopes and having to think about it every day.
posted by phunniemee at 2:04 PM on September 23, 2016 [23 favorites]

Yes, if you just write "Not at this address", it's not enough (although I feel like it should be); in my experience, you've got to black out whatever codes might have been applied to the envelope en route, or else it could be autorouted right back to you....

I prefer PhunnieMee's approach....
posted by Tandem Affinity at 2:41 PM on September 23, 2016 [4 favorites]

When I worked at the front desk of a dorm, where part of the job was distributing mail into the residents' boxes -- we were told that the post office will not forward mail marked "presort standard" -- most junk mail and catalogs and whatnot -- so not to bother sending it back.
posted by librarina at 4:17 PM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

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