Is It Illegal to Open Someone Else’s Mail Without Permission?

Is It Illegal to Open Someone Else's Mail Without Permission?

In general, opening other people’s mail without their permission is illegal. There is even a federal law that makes it a crime to open a person’s mail without permission. The criminal consequences you receive could be very serious.

Federal Laws Governing Mail Handling

In the United States, there are federal laws that strictly regulate the handling of mail, if someone opens mail that is not for them it can be considered a crime. You must understand this law so you can avoid the potential legal consequences that will arise if you violate it.

This federal law addresses the issue of opening other people’s mail, and it would be considered a federal offense if you did it intentionally. The potential punishment you receive is very severe. This federal law is referred to as the Mail Theft Act, in Title 18, Section 1708 of the United States Code.

According to this law, taking, stealing, and opening other people’s mail without permission is an illegal act, including intentionally obstructing delivery, tampering with mail, and destroying other people’s mail.

Breaking the rule carries a penalty of up to five years in prison and a fine of a maximum of $250,000. In addition to the amount of the fine, violators are required to pay compensation to the injured party.

However, these federal laws apply to specific situations. Before calling it a crime, your reasons for opening someone else’s mail will first be reviewed by the court.

Accidentally Opening Someone Else’s Mail

The situation where you accidentally open a mail intended for someone else is very possible, considering that people usually take mail from their mailbox.

Federal law 18 USC Section 1702 contains a prohibition against opening correspondence addressed to another person. However, this law cannot be used to criminally charge you if you did not know that the mail was not yours when you opened it.

For example, you bring a stack of mail from the mailbox and then open them one by one without paying attention to the names of the sender and recipient on the mail envelope. Therefore, this situation cannot be called a crime. Although it is not illegal, you need to realize that you have mistakenly opened someone else’s mail.

Federal law also states that it is illegal to stop delivery of mail to an authorized recipient, including if you do not promptly notify the U.S. Postal Service that you have received someone else’s mail.

While U.S. Postal Inspectors won’t arrest you for stopping delivery of mail to a legitimate recipient because it was accidentally thrown away and deemed to be spam, in the eyes of the law you are considered to have intentionally committed a federal crime for destroying someone else’s mail.

What you can do when you realize that the mail is not yours is to write “Wrong Address” or “Return to Sender” on the mail addressed to someone else, and place it back in the nearest mailbox. That way, the mail can reach the true owner.

Deliberately Opening Someone Else’s Mail

Maybe you live in an apartment complex where there is a communal mailbox, so piles of mail belong to various tenants. If you take mail that is intended for someone else, for example, your neighbor, and then open its contents, you are considered to have committed mail theft.

Deliberately taking mail that is not addressed to you from someone else’s mailbox is a federal crime. You may get a prison sentence of up to five years.

The US Postal Service typically handles mail stolen from storage. However, if the mail has been sent to your mailbox, then it is entirely your responsibility how to properly handle mail that has entered your mailbox incorrectly.

These federal laws generally address mail that goes out of storage, such as stolen from a post office, stolen from a mail carrier, or a mailbox. Moreover, if the mail is used for another crime, generally identity theft, then you will face additional charges besides mail theft.

Mail Theft

Actions that include mail theft are intentionally taking someone else’s mail and opening it. If you find out that the mail contains valuable objects, such as money or expensive items, then take it.

All of these actions will have consequences under federal law, including when you accidentally open someone else’s mail but decide to destroy it instead of returning it to the US Post to reach the rightful recipient.

Have Permission to Open Other People’s Mail

If you have permission to open someone else’s mail, then it is not considered an illegal act or crime. It is normal for someone to ask someone close to them, such as neighbors or family, to pick up their mail when they are away from home.

However, keep in mind that you can only open the mail if you have permission from the owner. If not, you will be committing a federal crime for opening the mail without the legal owner’s permission.

Federal laws governing mail theft only apply if you open the mail without permission. If you have permission from the recipient, then you are allowed to receive, open, and manage mail intended for other people without criminal charges.

Managing Mail While Managing Someone Else’s Home

Almost the same as having permission to manage other people’s mail, managing other people’s mail when you take care of their home is not a crime as long as you have permission. However, to open it, you must have legal permission from the recipient of the mail.

If you open it without permission, then it is illegal. You are still considered to have committed mail theft and may face consequences under applicable federal law.

Managing Mail Belonging to People Who Have Died

Managing someone else’s mail who has passed away has its own rules, as per USPS, “After a loved one dies, you can stop sending mail to their address. Learn how to make the proper request at the Post Office™ to redirect their mail or remove them from advertising lists.”

This applies if you live in the same place as another person and that person dies, you may manage and open mails that were received before that person died.

However, if you are the executor of a deceased person, and you need to forward their mail to another address, contact your local Post Office.

Potential Penalties for Opening Someone Else’s Mail Without Permission

Opening other people’s mail that is not addressed to you is illegal. However, if the legitimate recipient has permitted you to open their mail or you accidentally opened it, it is not a crime.

The applicable penalty for intentionally opening someone else’s mail without permission or stealing mail from Postal Service storage is a maximum of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. This penalty may be in addition to other criminal offenses for mail theft law violators, such as stealing valuables in the mail, taking money from envelopes, or using another person’s identity listed in the mail to commit a crime, such as fraud.

In addition to prison time, you may be required to pay a substantial fine. Given the potentially harsh penalties, stealing mail or opening someone else’s mail without permission may not seem worth the effort.

It’s best to contact your local post office immediately to confirm your legal concerns about opening other people’s mail without permission. So, you can avoid committing federal crimes by complying with applicable laws.

Why is It a Crime to Open Other People’s Mail Without Permission?

Federal law regulates mail handling laws not without reason. If you open someone else’s mail without permission, then you are considered to have intruded on someone else’s personal property and are considered to have violated their legal rights.

When mail is delivered to someone’s mailbox, it means it is the recipient’s property until they pick it up. If you take or open it without permission, you have violated that person’s privacy.

Moreover, after opening someone else’s mail without permission, you take an action that is detrimental to the actual recipient. For example, to commit crimes, theft of valuables in the mail, disseminate sensitive information, and commit fraud using the identity of the sender or recipient of the mail.

What Should You Do If You Accidentally Open Someone Else’s Mail?

When you realize that you have accidentally opened someone else’s mail without permission, immediately reseal the mail and return it to the nearest post box. Write a statement on the envelope that the mail has been misdirected or send it back to the sender, there is no charge for you. The Post Office will follow up on your statement by sending it to the correct recipient or returning it to the sender if the address cannot be found.

If the recipient of the mail is the previous owner of your home and has a new address, you can tell the post office the actual address of the new recipient, so they can send the mail to the correct address.

Most Common Causes of Mail Delivery Errors

There are several of the most common reasons why mail can arrive at the wrong recipient or address.

    • The recipient of the mail is someone who has lived at that address and is currently occupied by someone else.
    • The courier mistakenly delivered your neighbor’s mail to your address, unfortunately, you didn’t realize that the mail was not yours until you opened it.
    • The sender accidentally sent the wrong mail to the mail carrier, because he had more than one mail to send.
    • The courier does not know the legitimate recipient because the address is not written in full, and the recipient’s name is common.

Even though the mail delivery error could have come from the mail carrier, not you, you must still be careful when receiving mail, including what actions you take when you realize that the mail is addressed to someone else.

How to Avoid Accidentally Opening Other People’s Mail

Although accidentally opening someone else’s mail is not a federal crime, it is best to avoid it, as there could be a misunderstanding that could result in you still being charged with a crime.

Before opening the mail in your mailbox or receiving it directly from the courier, first check the shipping label on the envelope. View details of the recipient’s name, address, and sender. If you realize that the mail has been misdirected, reject the mail or return it to the nearest post office.

How to Avoid Shipping Mistakes

If you are a mail sender, you also need to ensure that the recipient’s name and address are correct to avoid delivery errors. This may impact the recipients of the mail, as they could be accused of committing a crime.

1. Hand over the mail carefully to the courier

It is best that you hand over your mail to the courier or post office yourself so that you can ensure that the package you send is correct, in terms of contents or recipient and address.

If you can’t hand it over directly, entrust it to someone you trust after making sure the package you give to that person is correct.

If you have to leave it at a designated mailbox, you must ensure that the courier will pick it up correctly.

2. Write a correct and complete address

The address you write on the shipping label must be clear and complete. These details include full name, street name and number, city name, house number, postal code, and additional information such as house location so that the mail can reach the correct recipient. Also, write down the recipient’s telephone number so that the courier can contact the recipient when making the delivery.

3. Track Your Packages/Mail Regularly

To find out if your mail has the right or wrong address, you can track your mail online. Track it regularly so you can know the delivery status as long as the courier brings your mail. If you notice any irregularities during the delivery process, immediately contact the delivery service for assistance with the irregularities.

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