Penal Code 530.5(e) PC is the California statute that prohibits mail theft. This section states that:
Every person who commits mail theft, as defined in Section 1708 of Title 18 of the United States Code, is guilty of a public offense, and upon conviction therefor shall be punished by a fine, by imprisonment in a county jail not to exceed one year, or by both a fine and imprisonment. Prosecution under this subdivision shall not limit or preclude prosecution under any other provision of law, including, but not limited to, subdivisions (a) to (c), inclusive, of this section.
- stealing pieces of mail from a post office.
- using fraud or deceit to get someone else’s mail.
- stealing mail from a neighbor’s mailbox and destroying it.
People accused of a crime under this statute can challenge the accusation with a legal defense. A few common defenses include defendants showing that:
- they took someone’s mail on accident,
- they did not act with criminal intent, and/or
- police officers violated one of their constitutional rights.
The crime is punishable by:
- custody in county jail for up to one year, and/or
- a maximum fine of $1,000.
Our California criminal defense attorneys will explain the following in this article:
- 1. How does California law define the crime of mail theft?
- 2. How do I fight a “mail theft” charge?
- 3. What are the penalties for Penal Code 530.5(e)?
- 4. Are there related offenses?
1. How does California law define “mail theft”?
The language of Penal Code 530.5(e) states that the definition of mail theft is set forth in Section 1708 of Title 18 of the United States Code.
According to that law, people commit the crime of stealing mail when they:
- steal or take any mail from a mailbox or receptacle or other authorized depository for mail, or from a post office or letter/mail carrier,
- use fraud or deception to obtain or attempt to obtain any mail from one of these sources,
- remove the contents of any stolen mail,
- destroy or hide any stolen mail, or
- buy, receive, or unlawfully possess any stolen mail, knowing that it is stolen.1
Note that “mail” includes letters, postcards, packages, and mailbags belonging to a postal inspector or the United States Postal Service (USPS).2
Note, too, that mail theft is associated much more closely with identity theft, per Penal Code 530.5a. Because many people steal others’ mail in order to obtain personal identifying information, identity theft and mail theft are often charged together.3
2. How do I fight a “mail theft” charge?
Criminal defense lawyers draw upon several legal strategies to help clients defend against charges of possession of stolen mail. Three common ones include lawyers showing that:
- a defendant stole mail by accident.
- an accused did not act with criminal intent.
- law enforcement violated one of the defendant’s constitutional rights.
People are not guilty under this statute if they somehow took another person’s mail by accident. Therefore, it is always a valid legal defense for an accused to show that he/she inadvertently took another’s mail.
2.2. No criminal intent
This is similar to an accident defense. A defendant can challenge a PC 530.5(e) charge by showing that he/she did not act with criminal or bad intentions. Perhaps, for example, an accused opened a neighbor’s mail because such person asked for it.
2.3. Violation of a constitutional right
Defendants can always try to challenge a mail theft charge by showing that police violated one of their constitutional rights.
For example, maybe an officer:
- conducted an unlawful search or seizure,
- stopped or arrested the defendant without probable cause,
- coerced a confession, or
- failed to read the defendant his/her Miranda rights.
If any of the above applies, then a judge could reduce or drop a defendant’s charges.
3. What are the penalties for Penal Code 530.5(e)?
A violation of this criminal law is a misdemeanor offense.
The crime is punishable by:
- imprisonment in county jail (as opposed to state prison) for up to one year, and/or
- a maximum fine of $1,000.4
Note that a judge has the discretion to award a defendant with misdemeanor (or summary) probation in lieu of jail time.
4. Are there related offenses?
There are three crimes related to mail theft. These are:
- petty theft – PC 488,
- grand theft – PC 487, and
- receiving stolen property – PC 496.
4.1. Petty theft – PC 488
Per Penal Code 488 PC, petty theft is the crime where people steal someone’s property or services worth $950 or less.
Note that if a person takes someone else’s mail that contains a check for under $950, then a prosecutor could charge the party with both:
- petty theft, and
- mail theft.
4.2. Grand theft – PC 487
Per Penal Code 487 PC, grand theft is the crime where people unlawfully take someone else’s money, labor, or property valued at $950.00 or greater.
California law treats grand theft as a more serious offense than mail theft. Grand theft is a wobbler offense. A prosecutor can charge a wobbler as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
Misdemeanor grand theft is punishable by up to one year in jail.
Felony grand theft is punishable by up to three years in state prison.
4.3. Receiving stolen property – PC 496
Under Penal Code 496 PC, receiving stolen property is the crime where people buy, receive, conceal, or sell any property that they know to be stolen.
As with charges of mail theft, a defendant can contest charges of receiving stolen property by showing that:
- he/she acted without criminal intent, and
- police violated one of his/her constitutional rights.