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What Is The Federal Law For Opening Mail Not Addressed To You?

The Federal Law For Opening Mail Not Addressed To You

Most people know that it’s illegal to open mail that is addressed to someone else. In fact, there is a federal law that makes it a crime to do so. However, the law only applies under very specific circumstances. To help determine if it’s lawful, take a look at the following reasons for opening mail not addressed to you.

Mail Not Addressed To You

Accidentally Opening Someone Else’s Mail

A federal statute known as 18 USC Section 1702 makes it illegal to open correspondence addressed to someone else. However, the law cannot be applied if you did not recognize that the mail was not yours when you opened it. For example, if you received several items in the mail and were opening all the envelopes without paying particular attention to the addressee, it is conceivable that you could open mail that was not yours. Because you did not recognize the mail as belonging to someone else before you opened it, no crime has been committed.

What To Do Next:

Although you may have opened someone else’s mail unintentionally, what you do with it afterward is what really counts. Toss the mail in the garbage, and you have intentionally obstructed the delivery of that correspondence. That is a crime, and there may be consequences. If this happens, write Return to Sender or note Wrong Address on the envelope and pop it into a mailbox. That way, the letter can still eventually reach the intended recipient.


Intentionally Opening Mail Not Addressed To You

The U.S. Postal Service is mainly concerned with mail that is stolen from their custody. In other words, once they have delivered mail to your box, it is no longer in their possession and they are relying on you to react appropriately if correspondence has been mishandled. The statute mostly addresses mail that is wrongfully removed from Postal Service custody, such as if it is stolen from a Post Office, a letter carrier, or a mailbox. Should the stolen mail be used to conduct another crime, like identity theft, then the thief might be facing additional charges.

Mail Theft

If someone opens mail that is not addressed to them with the intention of stealing what is inside, they are subject to consequences, as well. For instance, if you know someone was delivered cash in an envelope or shipped an expensive item, opening the mail and taking the possessions is still a form of theft that has consequences beyond that of opening mail not addressed to you.


Opening Someone Else’s Mail with Permission

It’s common for someone to ask a neighbor to collect and open his mail while he is away from home. In this case, you can open his mail as long as he has given you permission. It is only a crime if the person did not ask you to and you choose to open it anyway.

Managing the Mail of Someone Who Has Passed Away

According to USPS, “After a loved one has passed away, accumulating mail can attract unwanted attention. To avoid this, as appointed executor or administrator, you can file a request at the Post Office™ to redirect their mail [or] remove them from advertisers’ mailing lists.”

If you lived with someone who has passed away and received their mail before he or she died, you can still manage and open their mail as usual. If you are the executor of the deceased person’s estate and need to forward his or her mail to a different address, you will need to contact your local Post Office.

Federal Law For Opening Mail Not Addressed To You

Potential Penalties

While opening mail not addressed to you on accident or with permission is not a crime, a person who steals mail from Postal Service custody may be looking at as much as five years in prison. That sentence may be in addition to or concurrent with other prison terms that the thief is sentenced to in relation to other crimes they may have committed after stealing the correspondence. Sizable fines may also be involved. Considering the consequences, stealing mail hardly seems worth the effort.

If you have any additional questions or concerns about opening mail not addressed to you, you should contact your local Post Office to ensure you are following the law.


This article contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. The Law Dictionary is not a law firm, and this page does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

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