18 U.S.C. 1708 is the federal statute that prohibits mail theft, which is intentionally stealing, tampering with, or destroying someone else’s mail. A single conviction of mail theft carries up to five years in prison or a quarter million dollars in fines, or both.
The federal mail theft statute reads:
18 U.S.C. 1708. 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.
In this article, our Las Vegas criminal defense attorneys discuss:
- 1. What is mail theft?
- 2. What are the penalties?
- 3. How do I defend myself against the charges?
- 4. How can I protect myself from mail theft?
1. What is mail theft?
The federal crime of mail theft comprises:
- stealing or tampering with someone else’s mail; or
- obtaining someone else’s mail by fraud or deception.
It does not matter whether the mail has already been delivered or is awaiting pick-up. It also makes no difference whether the mail is addressed to a residence or a business.1
It is not a crime to pick up or open someone else’s mail by accident. But once you realize it was not intended for you, you should write “delivered to the wrong address” on the envelope and either:
- return it to your mail carrier,
- put it in any outgoing mailbox, or
- deliver it yourself.
Note that if you keep a package containing goods that you did not pay for and were not intended for you, you could face Nevada larceny charges in addition to federal mail theft charges.
2. What are the penalties?
Mail theft is a felony carrying:
- Up to 5 years in federal prison, and/or
- A fine of up to $250,000.2
Note that stealing multiple mail pieces in a single transaction is prosecuted as one mail theft charge, not as multiple charges for each stolen mail piece.3
3. How do I defend myself against the charges?
From our experience in federal court, we found that the best defense to mail theft allegations is to argue that you genuinely did not realize the letter or package was not meant for you.
People never expect to receive other people’s mail and will often open whatever is in their mailbox without first checking the addressee. As long as you had no intent to steal, criminal charges should not stand.
4. How can I protect myself from mail theft?
The best way to protect yourself from mail theft is to get a locking mailbox large enough to hold packages. Do not leave mail in your mailbox overnight and if you are going out of town, ask the post office to hold your mail.
Victims of mail break-ins and theft in Nevada can report mail theft online or call the U.S. Postal Service at 1-800-ASK-USPS (1-800-275-8777).
In California? Please see our page on California mail theft (PC 530e).
- 18 U.S.C. 1708. See also U.S. v. Lavin (3rd. Cir., 1977) 567 F.2d 579 (“Congress intended to protect mail left at the addressee’s front door as well as letters left in the addressee’s mailbox.”)
- 18 U.S.C. 1708. 18 U.S.C. 3571. See also United States v. Dupas, (9th Cir., 2005) 417 F.3d 1064.
- See United States v. Lindsay, (8th Cir., 1977) 552 F.2d 263.