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