There are a lot of different types of felonies, which can be prosecuted on either a state or federal level. However, as interstate communication and commerce involvement are a quick way to bump a felony up to a federal crime, mail felonies are often in the federal jurisdiction, meaning these crimes are more serious than they may even seem. There are quite a few crimes that can be committed through the mail, and it’s possible that you may not even realize you’re committing one, such as mailing prescription drugs. Therefore, it’s important to know what these postal crimes are, what you are and aren’t allowed to mail, and what the penalties are for violating these laws.
Simply put, mail fraud is when any type of fraud is committed through the mail. There are many different fraud schemes, which is probably why it’s the one of the most common federal crimes committed, but they all come down to this: Fraud occurs when the perpetrator uses deception in order to obtain someone’s money, property, or anything else of reasonable value to the victim. The United States Postal Service (USPS) or other private postal services often become involved when there are contracts, payments, and other communications that are mailed from the perpetrator to the victim and vice versa, making the crime federal mail fraud. Some examples of mail fraud include: investment fraud, not fulfilling a merchandise order, and insurance fraud.
It’s governed by 18 U.S. Code § 1341, which outlines the two simple requirements for mail fraud to occur:
- A scheme to fraud someone out of money or property, whether it’s carried out successfully or not
- Mailing something related to the scheme through a postal service to either attempt to commit or execute the fraud
As detailed in this mail fraud statute, the penalty for this federal crime can include a fine and up to 20 years in prison. This worsens when the fraud involves a major disaster or emergency, increasing the fine to up to a million dollars and the prison sentence to 30 years.
One of the most famous cases of mail fraud is the Ponzi Scheme. After World War I, the exchange rates for postal reply coupons – coupons that could be exchanged for postage stamps in another country – were fluctuating wildly. Charles Ponzi came up with a scheme where he would buy these coupons in inexpensive countries and then exchange and sell them in countries where they were worth more than he originally paid, turning a profit. However, he got greedy and tried to get more people in on the efforts in order to optimize profits. He would promise investors ridiculous results, such as returns of 50 percent in just 45 days. Unfortunately, he couldn’t deliver, so he began to pay higher up investors with money collected from lower level investors. But then, he would have to recruit new investors to pay those investors. Ponzi himself, however, was getting rich, making $250,000 a day, reportedly, until The Boston Post began investigating. The investors all tried to pull out, and Ponzi was charged with 86 counts of mail fraud, with a price tag of seven million dollars. He pleaded guilty and served 14 years in prison.
Another example of fraud taking advantage of the postal service is the case of Clifford Irving in 1971. He contacted the publishing company McGraw-Hill and claimed that he had made contact with the infamous Howard Hughes, living as a recluse at that time, who had given him permission to write his biography – he had not. However, McGraw-Hill proceeded with a $750,000 advance, and Life magazine also sent a good-sized check. His elaborate story included meetings and interviews, and eventually some letters from Hughes found their way into his collection of evidence. But by the end of the year, Hughes and his lawyers decided to come out and announce that Hughes had not actually had any communication with Irving. Some weren’t completely convinced Irving was the one lying, but the story began to unravel soon after. Despite how carefully he studied Hughes’ handwriting, postal inspectors were still able to examine the handwriting on the alleged letters from Hughes to provide further proof that Irving was committing fraud. Irving returned the rest of the money and pleaded guilty to grand larceny and conspiracy. He received a 2 1/2 years prison sentence, of which he only served 16 months.
This is a self explanatory one. According to the Unites States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), they made 2,487 arrests for mailbox theft. 18 U.S. Code § 1708 makes stealing mail, even something as small as a postcard, a federal felony. It sets the maximum punishment at five years in prison and a possible fine.
Money Laundering through Postal Service
Money laundering is when someone tries to hide the source of their money, usually by transferring it through several ownerships in order to confuse its origin. This is often done when criminals have obtained suspiciously large amounts of money through illegal enterprises, and they’re looking to avoid detection by the IRS. They then will usually place it a legitimate financial account or invest it, and then use it to make purchases, spreading the money throughout the economy again and disguising its original source.
One way in which a criminal may accomplish this is by taking cash that they earned illegally and mailing it to another country to be deposited into another account. Additionally, one may be obtaining the money through a scheme using the mail service to begin with, such as mailing narcotics or committing mail fraud.
This law is contained in 18 U.S. Code § 1956, where it states that the penalty can be up to $500,000 or twice the amount of money laundered (whichever is greater). It may also come with up to 20 years in prison.
Identity Theft through Mail
The postal service can be involved in a scheme of identity theft in a few ways. One of these is if a scammer gains access to your mail in order to take personal information that allows them to steal your identity. They can then use your identity to take out loans, set up accounts, make large purchases, or any number of activities that can greatly damage your finances. This is why it’s important to retrieve your mail frequently and shred all personal information that comes in the mail.
Another way this can become a federal charge of identity theft is if a scammer communicates with a victim through mail in order to deceitfully obtain their personal information.
Identity theft is governed by 18 U.S. Code § 1028, and it states that someone charged with federal identity theft may receive a fine and/or up to 15 years in prison.
Obstruction of Mail Delivery
You can actually go to prison for up to six months and get a fine for prohibiting or slowing down a postal worker or any type of conveyance from delivering mail to its destination, according to 18 U.S. Code § 1701.
Mail and Child Exploitation
The production, possession, and distribution of child pornography is all illegal, and it becomes a federal crime when it is transported across state lines through the mail. According to 18 U.S. Code § 2252A, anyone found guilty of distributing child pornography must receive a sentence of at least 5 years, but not more than 20 years, and a fine. However, if they have a prior related conviction, they can be subject to at least 15 years and up to 40 years.
Additionally, the federal government can even press charges for anyone that allows or coerces a minor into producing sexual materials that they have reason to believe will be transported through the mail. This punishment comes with at least a fine and 15 years to 30 years in prison, as detailed in 18 U.S. Code § 2251. This sentence also increases according to prior guilty charges, going up to life in prison in the most severe circumstances.
Assault on a Postal Worker
As all federal employees are protected from assault on a special level, described in 18 U.S.C. § 111, postal employees of the USPS are also covered under this law. A defendant who “forcibly assaults, resists, opposes, impedes, intimidates, or interferes with” any of these government workers is subject to up to eight years in prison and a fine. If it’s aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, then the prison time is increased to up to 20 years.
Assault and Extortion Through Mail
Assault doesn’t actually require physical harm to occur to the victim. An assault is any type of threat in which the victim reasonably feels like they are in danger of being injured. Therefore, assault can occur through mail if someone were to send a threat of violence through the postal service, which would qualify as a federal crime.
Additionally, extortion becomes a federal offense when its communication occurs through mail. This may include the threat of violence for money, ransom or reward for a kidnapped person, or a threat to destroy property.
Under 18 U.S. Code § 876, these threatening communications through the mail can lead to charges of a fine or up to 20 years in prison, or both.
18 U.S. Code § 1705 makes it illegal to deface, destroy, or take down someone’s mailbox. This crime comes with up to three years in prison and/or a fine.
Mailing Controlled and Illegal Substances
This falls under 21 U.S.C. § 841, which regulates the distribution of controlled substances. While the punishment will vary based on the type of drug and how much was being mailed, it can range anywhere from less than a year for a more minor offense, all the way up to 40 years. The fine can start at around a million dollars and reach 25 million dollars. This also includes prescription drugs. Depending on the drug schedule that the prescription falls under, the penalty for prescription drugs can be up to 20 years and a million dollar fine for the first offense.
Firearms are also considered nonmailable under 18 U.S. Code § 1715; however, there are exceptions, mostly for military and other service members, but this is still heavily regulated. Mailing a firearm can be punished with up to two years in prison or a fine – or both.
Other items that are prohibited from being mailed include:
- Poisonous animals, insects, or reptiles
- Hazardous material
- Anything that may catch on fire or explode
- Biohazardous material
- Anything that can kill or injure someone
- Poisonous drugs and medicines
- Any type of alcohol
These are made a federal offense by 18 U.S. Code § 1716, which describes its punishment as up to a year in jail and a possible fine. However, if these items were sent in the mail in the attempt to injure or kill someone, this penalty increases to 20 years. If they are successful, they can face the charges of assault or manslaughter, which means they are facing life in prison or even the death penalty.
One of the most well known cases of nefarious items being sent through the mail is the Unabomber. Theodore Kaczynski, a recluse living in the mountains on Montana, used the postal service to mail homemade bombs to random targets for 17 years, killing 3 and injuring 24 from 1978-1995. He ended up taking a plea deal, pleading guilty to all counts and being sentenced to life in prison.
Can Law Enforcement Search Your Mail?
The rights that you have under the Fourth Amendment against unlawful search and seizure still require law enforcement to procure a federal warrant in order to open your mail and check to see if it contains illegal items. A warrant, however, does require probable cause, meaning that they must have reasonable grounds to believe that the package or letter in question being mailed is involved in a crime in some way. Yet this isn’t always guaranteed. A warrant isn’t required if there is probable cause to believe that the safety of anyone is in immediate danger. Additionally, if there is probable cause that the package contains evidence of a crime that could be disposed of before a warrant could be obtained or if the evidence of crime somehow comes into plain view, an officer can search your mail without a warrant. Some instances where this could possibly occur include:
- If the postal office receives a tip or notices something suspicious about a package indicating that it’s a bomb and there’s no time to wait for a warrant
- If a shipping envelope tears open and marijuana falls out
- If your mail is in the trash
In many cases, the postal service will use trained drug dogs in order to find packages containing drugs, ammunition, and other nonmailable items that the dogs will be able to detect. This will very likely lead to a warrant being obtained and your package searched.
If your mail is opened and searched by law enforcement prior to obtaining a warrant and none of these exceptions have occurred, then the evidence obtained during the search is considered unlawful and cannot be used as evidence against the defendant in court.
Who Investigates Federal Postal Crimes?
The law enforcement of the USPS is the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS). Founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1775, the USPIS has jurisdiction over the local, state, and federal postal systems, employees, and customers. They work with local, state, and federal agencies to complete their duties, which include:
- Protecting USPS facilities and property
- Protecting USPS employees
- Investigating and prosecuting the transportation of illegal narcotics
- Investigating and prosecuting mail and package theft
- Investigating and prosecuting identity theft
- Investigating and prosecuting mail fraud
- Fraud prevention and education
- Responding to and investigating suspicious mail
- Disaster response
- Investigating and prosecuting money laundering
- Investigating and monitoring cybercrime against the US Mail service
- Global mail security
- Investigating and prosecuting child exploitation
The Postal Service and the Law
Although it may seem like an innocent and common part of our government system, the postal system can still be used in some criminal manners, and as such, there are laws in place to govern what can and can’t be sent through the mail, when a crime is taken to the federal level, and the rights of those using postal services. Violating some of these laws can come with serious penalties, whether it be years of prison time or high fines. Additionally, if a crime occurs and a postal service was involved, there’s a chance that it can turn from a state charge to a federal charge. There is a chance you may not realize just how serious of a crime some of these actions are or even that they are a crime at all, so it’s important to know what exactly you’re allowed to use the postal system for. If you’re ever uncertain about whether you’re able to mail a certain item, ask your post office.