Under what circumstances can you use the address of a service organization or shelter?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

The law does not give anyone the right to use an agency’s address without permission. Shelters and service organizations will usually have clear policies if they allow clients to use their address to get mail. Those policies, which could require participation in particular services on a regular basis and over a certain amount of time, are a form of contract.  This means that only by agreeing to cooperate with the agency’s terms is somebody allowed to use the address.  Not cooperating is a breach of the contract.  Once the contract has been breached, the agency no longer has an obligation to allow that person to use the address and the staff can write “return to sender” on incoming mail.

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Is anyone else allowed to open and read your mail before you do?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

It is a federal crime to intercept mail. Opening and reading someone else’s mail is a crime above and beyond that.[i] Even though most federal crimes are investigated by the FBI, those relating to mail are handled by the postal inspection service. The crimes are identified in Title 18 of the U.S. Code Chapter 83

That section, titled “Obstruction of mails generally,” states that anyone who “knowingly and willfully obstructs or retards the passage of the mail” will be fined and/or imprisoned for up to six months. Section 1702 says that taking mail out of a mail box or from a mail carrier, “before it has been delivered to the person to whom it was directed, with design to obstruct 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.”
These sound like clear crimes, but they become convoluted if someone is having mail delivered to another person’s address and the address holder feels some degree of responsibility to watch for checks or important messages. If there has been some agreement between a homeless person and an address holder giving the address holder permission to open and preview mail, then there probably won’t be anybody filing a complaint to the postal inspector alleging that the mail has been obstructed.
The person with the right to file that kind of complaint would be the person named in the mail. This is an example of when it can be very helpful to have a written agreement identifying responsibilities and expectations. In fact, an address holder would be wise to get written permission if a homeless friend has asked that mail be opened. That way, if there is ever a legal complaint that he was obstructing correspondence or prying into secrets, the address holder can prove that he was not opening the mail for those reasons, he was opening it to only satisfy the request of the homeless person.
The federal law against “theft or receipt of stolen mail matter generally” supports the right of homeless people to get their mail even if they have arranged to have it sent to an address where they don’t live and they have authorized someone to open it and see what’s inside.  That law, in Title 18 Section 1708 forbids taking or trying to take mail or even one item contained within a mailed package or envelope. An address holder with written permission to open mail who does open the mail, but then uses something in that mail for his own benefit or simply doesn’t hand it over, has committed a federal crime.
If any of these obstruction or theft of mail crimes seems to have occurred, there are two ways that a victim can file a complaint with the Postal Inspection Service: 1. by making a report in person at any post office, which will involve completing a form and then being available for the postal inspector’s follow-up investigation or 2. by completing the complaint form available on the home page of the Postal Inspection Service.


[i] http://assembler.law.cornell.edu/uscode/html/uscode18/usc_sup_01_18_10_I_20_83.html

If you arrange to have your mail sent to someone else’s house, is that homeowner responsible for letting you know you have mail waiting?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Doing someone a favor can create a legal obligation under contract law, but only when the favor is repayment for something or when the recipient of the favor has made a promise to do something in exchange for the favor.  So law about doing the favor of receiving mail would generally come from contracts cases.[i] In limited circumstances, the crime of mail theft might apply.[ii]

Undoubtedly, the legal remedy of suing in court comes about too late in problems caused by not finding out whether mail has arrived. If mail containing a big check or a job offer or a housing opportunity has not gotten to the intended recipient, the chance to benefit from that mail content has just been lost and some slow court dispute with the address holder is not going to bring it back.

As in most contract law situations, the way to use the law effectively is to make a good clear agreement in the first place, rather than hoping that the court system will solve anything later. If a homeless person wants an address holder to get his mail to him, he has to make that expectation perfectly clear in the agreement and, ideally, should contribute some effort toward assuring that he gets his mail.

For example, he could promise that he will personally come to that address every Thursday to ask for mail or he could arrange to be available in a particular location every evening in case there is mail that the address holder needs to give him. The address holder also has to make his interests very clear in the agreement. He might want to obligate himself for a limited time only or he might want the homeless person to use his address just for Social Security mailings and nothing else. Certainly, the agreement should detail how the address holder and the homeless person are going to communicate with each other because communication is the primary task involved in getting the mail from one person to another.

Contract law does not require that agreements be written down, but the process of writing down the separate responsibilities and intentions, especially when both parties doing the write together, assures that the address holder and the homeless person both know their own and each other’s obligations. Writing makes it a serious deal, more than just a casual notion. And having the writing enables both parties to point to the document as a reminder to the other if anything starts to go wrong.

If things do go wrong and the parties end-up fighting in court over a failed mail delivery, the written contract will make the court process simpler because the judge won’t have to figure out what promises the parties made to each other. Instead, the court will try to determine whether someone breached the agreement and whether any reparable harm occurred because of that breach.  The court will consider how much of the contract was fulfilled and how the parties interacted up to the point of the breach. The person filing the lawsuit has to state what remedy he is entitled to if he successfully proves a breach.

It will be tempting to claim that if the undelivered mail could have led to riches and contentment. The hopes and possibilities that could have ensued from getting the mail (i.e., the income from the job that was advertised in that envelope, the lottery winnings that might have come from using part of the check in that never-given envelope, the bountiful benefits that could have begun by getting into the housing program that was offered in that mail…) cannot be claimed as contract damages. Those possibilities are only guesses. Most of the time, if anything, a court might only order repayment of real losses that can honestly be counted, such as the amount of a check that should have been passed along.


[i] State contract statutes are usually about sales of goods, insurance policies, financial matters, and sometimes employment.

 

[ii] Title 18 US Code Section 1708.

When can you use a post office box instead of a street address?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

In general, a post office box can be used instead of a street address when establishing a place for people to send mail, but not when someone needs to identify himself to the government. For example, street address is normally required for obtaining a government-issued photo I.D., registering a car, and applying for jobs.

Here is one handy work-around that works when the post office has competition from another nearby delivery service:

Post office box customers can use the post office’s street address as their street address and identify their P.O. Box number just within the zip code of that street address. The rule explaining this is at Section 4.5.4 of the Domestic Mail Manual, under the topic of “competitive P.O. Box services.”  http://pe.usps.gov/text/dmm300/508.htm#1141179 The phrase “competitive P.O. Box services” means that the post office in that neighborhood has to compete with a UPS store or a similar private business that offers package delivery services. So, if somebody has post office box #1234, and his post office is located at 100 Main St. in Long Beach, California, he can tell everyone that his street address is 100 Main Street, Long Beach, California, 90808-1234.

Applying for a job doesn’t sound like communicating with the government, but the communication is indirect; employers are required to make payments to the Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service on behalf of employees. They have to identify each employee by name, social security number, and address in order to make those payments.

When registering to vote, it is permissible for a homeless person to give the street address of a relative or an agency he or she is involved with. But it is also necessary to identify where you reside or expect to continue residing (name the park, bridge, or other location specifically) because the voting system is intended to appoint representatives for populations according to their geographic designations. The National Coalition for the Homeless has a full explanation, resources for registering or even coordinating a voter registration event, and advocacy materials available at  http://nationalhomeless.org/campaigns/voting/.

There is not merely one law stating that people have to give the government their street address. Instead, there are minute regulations, many separate hard-to-find requirements by government agencies, declaring when and where addresses are to be used in each agency’s conduct of business.

Criminal law requirements for homeless contact information are generally stricter than the procedures in the social services codes. Probation rules and sex offender registries, for example, require that offenders provide a street address where they can be located if an officer comes looking for them; living on the street is simply not an option. A homeless shelter or halfway house address may be used if the offender truly resides there, but the probation and sex offender registry rules additionally require that offenders report to an agent on a regular basis and immediately notify police authorities of any change in their whereabouts.[i]

The agencies involved with housing and health and income services, for example HUD (Housing and Urban Development) and HHS (Health and Human Services), which routinely interact with the homeless population have ways for people to access their services by communicating through channels other than mail or by having the mail sent to places where clients do not live, but can at least check-in.


[i] Sample sex offender registry statutes show the variety of ways states verify street addresses:
California “Beginning on or before the 30th day following initial registration upon release, a transient must re-register no less than once every 30 days thereafter.” Cal. Penal Code §290(c)(1).

Connecticut “the Department of Public Safety shall verify the address of each registrant by mailing a non-forwardable verification form to the registrant at the registrant’s last reported address. Such form shall require the registrant to sign a statement that the registrant continues to reside at the registrant’s last reported address and return the form by mail by a date which is ten days after the date such form was mailed to the registrant. The form shall contain a statement that failure to return the form or providing false information is a violation of section 54-251, 54-252, 54-253 or 54-254, as the case may be. Each person required to register under section 54-251, 54-252, 54-253 or 54-254 shall have such person’s address verified in such manner every ninety days after such person’s initial registration date.” Ct. Gen. Stat. Ann. §54-257(c).

District of Columbia “The procedures and requirements [of the offender registration agency] may include….(1) Verify address information or other information at least annually, or at more frequent intervals as specified by the Agency;(2) Return address verification forms;(3) Appear in person for purposes of verification;(4) Cooperate in the taking of fingerprints and photographs, as part of the verification process; and (5) Update any information that has changed since any preceding registration or verification as part of the verification process.” DC Code §22-4008(a).

Florida “Each time a sexual offender’s driver’s license or identification card is subject to renewal, and, without regard to the status of the offender’s driver’s license or identification card, within 48 hours after any change in the offender’s permanent or temporary residence or change in the offender’s name by reason of marriage or other legal process, the offender shall report in person to a driver’s license office”…. “A sexual offender who vacates a permanent residence and fails to establish or maintain another permanent or temporary residence shall, within 48 hours after vacating the permanent residence, report in person to the sheriff’s office of the county in which he or she is located.” Fl. Stat. Ann. §943.0435 (4)(a)&(b).

Is the post office obligated to deliver mail to people who don’t have an address?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

The postal service has always had a way for people without addresses to get their mail. The same system that existed for pioneers in remote homesteads and mining camps that didn’t have street addresses is still in place today: general delivery. General delivery means that the post office will hold onto mail for someone to pick-up when it has been addressed to that person in care of the post office, rather than to the person at a street address.

The law describing the extent and limits of general delivery service is in Section 6.0 of the Domestic Mail Manual which says “general delivery is intended primarily as a temporary means of delivery…for transients and customers not permanently located.”[i] The terms of that section go on to state that general delivery is “available at only one facility under the administration of a multi-facility post office” (i.e. the main post office in town or in the county) and that the general delivery mail will only be held for thirty days.
Clearly, general delivery’s limits on timing and location can make it very difficult for homeless people to collect their mail.

There was an effort by several homeless men in Seattle to get general delivery extended to more convenient branch post offices or to at least obtain post office boxes, but the court determined that their First Amendment right to mail service was satisfied by the one site general delivery rule.[ii] The men’s complaint about not getting post office boxes arose from two rules in the Domestic Mail Manual. One requires that all applicants for P.O. boxes provide a street address in the application for a box.[iii] Since the homeless do not have street addresses, the rule seemed to prevent them from being able to get post office boxes even for a fee.

The Postal Service has an address exception for the homeless though. The exception allows the homeless to show signed photo identification; prove a connection to some social service office, employer or shelter; or be known to a postal clerk or the postmaster.[iv] The Postal Service’s administrative court, which first heard this case, concluded that the men who had signed photo ID’s issued by the homeless shelter had identified themselves well enough to get post office boxes.[v] The federal appeals court upheld that decision by the Administrative Law Judge.[vi]

The second P.O. box rule in this case was about payment for P.O. boxes. The homeless men believed that they should be entitled to free post office box service because their circumstances satisfied the criteria listed in the Free Box Service rule: physical location within the geographic boundaries administered by the post office, location had potential to get delivery service, post office chose not to provide delivery service, and customer didn’t get delivery service.[vii]

The Administrative Law Judge, and later the federal appeals court, held that the free box rule was really meant for people and businesses with fixed locations where the post office simply could not provide delivery services; it was not for transients and people who congregate in places that do not even have fixed addresses.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) submitted a friend of the court brief to the federal appeals court in this case to assert that the Postal Service had a legal obligation to provide all communities with mail service, despite government cost and convenience worries, particularly the homeless population which has such limited access to communication systems and which depends on the mail service to deliver the government’s own unemployment, workers compensation, welfare, disability, and medical assistance checks to them. The heart of their brief was the message that homeless people miss-out on all kinds of basic necessities and dignities largely because they lack addresses and that the Postal Service, by simply allowing free post office boxes or general delivery at their branches, could fix that problem.[viii]


[i] The Domestic Mail Manual is available on the Internet at http://pe.usps.gov/ .

[ii] Currier v. Potter, 379 F.3d 716 (9th Cir. 2004).

[iii] The rule in the Domestic Mail Manual, chapter 508 “Recipient Services” part 4.3.1(a), requires P.O. box applicants to complete Form 1093 http://about.usps.com/forms/ps1093.pdf in which the applicant has to identify himself by name, address, and phone number.

[iv] Postal Buletin 21877 issued September 29, 1994.

[v] In the Matter of the Petitions by Currier, Kerns, and Bar, Postal Service Docket # POB 00-209,00-271, and 00-272, December 29, 2000.

[vi] Currier v. Potter , 379 F.3d 716, 723 (9th Cir. 2004).

[vii] Domestic Mail Manual Chapter 508 “Recipient Services” part 4.6.2 “Free Box Service.” The Domestic Mail Manual is free online at http://pe.usps.gov/.

[viii] Currier v. Henderson, Brief of National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty as Amicus Curiae in Support of Appellants and Reversal, July 10, 2002. This brief is available on the Web at http://www.nlchp.org/content/pubs/Currier%20v%20Postal%20Service1.pdf .