Stealing mail is a crime in California, under California Penal Code 530.5(e) PC.1
US mail theft is treated differently than many California theft crimes. For instance, unlike with grand theft and petty theft, the penalties for mail theft do not depend on the monetary value of the mail that was taken.2
Mail theft is associated much more closely with identity theft, a California fraud crime. Because many people steal others' mail in order to obtain personal identifying information, identity theft and mail theft are often charged together.
The legal definition of mail theft
The official legal definition of US mail theft is set forth in two laws:
- California Penal Code 530.5(e); and
- 18 United States Code 1708, which defines the federal crime of mail theft.3
You commit the crime of stealing US mail in California if you do any of the following:
- Steal or take any mail from a mailbox or receptacle or other authorized depository for mail, or from a post office or letter 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.4
“Mail” includes letters, postcards, packages and mail bags.5
Example: Helen walks through a quiet residential neighborhood not long after the mail carrier has delivered mail. She goes to the houses with no cars parked in the driveway and rings the doorbell to see if anyone is home.
If no one is home, she opens the mailbox of that house and takes out all the mail she finds inside that comes from banks. She is hoping that this mail will contain credit card information that will allow her to commit credit card fraud.
Helen is guilty of PC 530.5(e) mail theft.
Example: After casing a wealthy neighborhood, Sam determines that the residents of one large house have gone on vacation. Their mail is delivered through a mail slot.
One day Sam enters the yard of that house and waits for the mailman to arrive. When he does, Sam claims to be the house sitter and makes small talk with the mailman. Eventually the mailman hands the vacationing family's mail to Sam.
Sam is guilty of mail theft for using deception to obtain someone else's mail from a mail carrier.
Example: Luis moves into an apartment that used to be occupied by a woman named Tamara. Tamara has not set up mail forwarding, and Luis keeps receiving her mail.
One day Luis receives a letter for Tamara from the IRS which is marked “Urgent.” Luis thinks he should maybe try to locate Tamara on the internet so that he can let her know about this important piece of mail. But first he opens and reads the letter, to make sure it truly is urgent.
Luis did remove the contents from someone else's mail. But he did not do so with criminal intent and so is not guilty of theft of Tamara's mail under Penal Code 530.5(e).
Penalties for theft of US mail
Mail theft is a misdemeanor in California law.6
The potential penalties are:
- Misdemeanor (summary) probation;
- Up to one (1) year in county jail; and/or
- A fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000).7
Legal defenses against PC 530.5(e) charges
According to San Jose criminal defense attorney Reve Bautista8:
“Mail theft may sound like a minor offense—the sort of crime bored teenagers might commit. But recently California authorities have begun taking it quite seriously. Law enforcement officials claim that criminal street gangs are increasingly involved in mail theft schemes, with the ultimate goal being identity theft.”
If you are wrongfully accused of mail theft as part of this crackdown, there are several common legal defenses that may be helpful.
One is the legal defense of accident.
There are all sorts of reasons why you might inadvertently take mail that did not belong to you. Maybe you grabbed someone else's mail by accident at the post office, thinking it was your own. Maybe you absentmindedly opened your neighbor's mail when it was delivered by mistake to your house.
Another potential legal defense is that you lacked criminal intent.
As with the example of Luis above, there are situations where someone might take or open another person's mail with only good intentions. If you and your criminal defense attorney can convince a prosecutor that this is what happened, s/he is unlikely to want to pursue the charges against you.
Call us for help…
For questions about the crime of Penal Code 530.5(e) PC theft of US mail, or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our California criminal defense attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
We have local criminal law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.
For more information on Nevada identity theft laws, please see our page on Nevada identity theft laws.
1 Penal Code 530.5 PC – Mail theft. (“(e) 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.”)
2 Compare same with Penal Code 489 PC – Grand theft; punishment, and Penal Code 490 PC – Petty theft; punishment.
3 Penal Code 530.5 PC – Mail theft, endnote 1 above.
18 U.S.C. 1708 – Theft or receipt of stolen mail matter generally. (“Whoever steals, takes, or abstracts, or by fraud or deception obtains, or attempts so to obtain, from or out of any mail, post office, or station thereof, letter box, mail receptacle, or any mail route or other authorized depository for mail matter, or from a letter or mail carrier, any letter, postal card, package, bag, or mail, or abstracts or removes from any such letter, package, bag, or mail, any article or thing contained therein, or secretes, embezzles, or destroys any such letter, postal card, package, bag, or mail, or any article or thing contained therein; or Whoever steals, takes, or abstracts, or by fraud or deception obtains any letter, postal card, package, bag, or mail, or any article or thing contained therein which has been left for collection upon or adjacent to a collection box or other authorized depository of mail matter; or Whoever buys, receives, or conceals, or unlawfully has in his possession, any letter, postal card, package, bag, or mail, or any article or thing contained therein, which has been so stolen, taken, embezzled, or abstracted, as herein described, knowing the same to have been stolen, taken, embezzled, or abstracted--Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.”)
6 Penal Code 530.5 PC – Mail theft, endnote 1 above.
See also Penal Code 672 PC – Offenses for which no fine prescribed; fine authorized in addition to imprisonment. (“Upon a conviction for any crime punishable by imprisonment in any jail or prison, in relation to which no fine is herein prescribed, the court may impose a fine on the offender not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000) in cases of misdemeanors [like stealing US mail] or ten thousand dollars ($10,000) in cases of felonies, in addition to the imprisonment prescribed.”)
8 San Jose criminal defense attorney Reve Bautista was a prosecutor with the Contra Costa District Attorney and the San Francisco District Attorney for over two decades. As a result, she is well-known at every courthouse in the San Francisco Bay Area. She uses her inside knowledge of how prosecutors think and build cases to defend clients accused of a wide variety of felony and misdemeanor crimes, including mail theft.