1/2 re Apple: Illegal for Police to Open Mail?

In listening to a CBS news radio story about the ongoing debate over whether Apple should help the FBI open the encrypted I-Phones in the San Bernardino case…

CBS noted that it is illegal for the government to open the mail of suspects.

Can that be true in the same way?

Suppose John Doe commits a big horrible crime, and, later, the police get a warrant to search his house for evidence. Sitting on his kitchen table are a bunch of letters, clearly having arrived by USPS mail. Postmarks and stamps.

Would the police/FBI be prohibited from opening these?

So long as the search warrant the authorities have covers things such as letters, papers, and such then they can seize and open mail. No problem.

Police do not need a warrant to examine packages or mail, including the contents, when:

  1. postal workers/inspectors (or private package delivery services) opened the item when their employees suspected illegal activity.
  2. the item is entering/leaving the country.
  3. Exigent circumstances exist.
  4. you have placed the mail/package in the trash and moved the trash to its point of collection by trash collectors.

But if a search warrant is the justification for opening the item and the warrant is limited and the items sought could not possibly fit inside such a sealed envelope then the authorities could not open the mail. This is dubbed the Sugar Bowl rule after an example used in the precedent court case. So if the warrant specifies the police can search for a stolen bowing ball then police could not legally open a regular sealed envelope since a bowling ball could not possibly fit inside.

Though the police often get around the Sugar Bowl Rule by including cash on the warrant among what they’re looking for. Cash could be hidden in an envelope, or in a sugar bowl, or almost anywhere else, so it allows them to search almost everywhere.

Iggy: Thanks for the answer. I think the CBS news report may have phrased things confusingly, as I thought they were saying the police/FBI “can’t open mail” anytime, ever, even with a warrant. Probably just awkward newswriting (or maybe I have a tin ear.)

Chronos: Clever dodge on their part, I guess. It’s always possible to violate the spirit of the law (and, no matter how verbose it gets, it’s all too often possible to violate the letter.)

Presumably they have to show why money is involved in what they are investigating. With drugs or stolen merchandise, obviously it would be. For a murder (other than murder for hire) probably not.