Old USPS ads saying you can keep misdelivered mail

I recall the PSA, but my memory is the opposite of yours—I believe it said that if a company sent merchandise to you that you hadn’t ordered, you could keep it (and ignore their attempts to make you pay for it). It was essentially an anti-scam PSA. It was not about accidental misdeliveries.

Admittedly this was many decades ago and my memory may be faulty.

Yes, which is why I included the other two cites and quotes, which specifically state you can’t open other peoples uSPS mail.

Yes, that was the ad. That was talking about a parcel addressed to you that you did not order= that is a free gift,

Okay, so this is pretty crazy. First, this case is referring to 18 U.S.C. §1708, not the 18 U.S.C. § 1702 that is usually cited in this context.

Second…unless I’m reading this statute wrongly somehow, yes, it’s definitely the case that this guy broke the law, because everybody breaks this law every day when they get their mail.

Check for yourself, and see if you can find my error, because that obviously makes no sense…but when you cut the irrelevant and duplicative parts out of that law, you get

Whoever takes, from any letter box, any letter, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.

What am I missing here?

I mean, not really. This is about an argument on NextDoor about a misdelivered package, and whether the guy that kept it broke the law. Since this was UPS and not USPS, the answer is pretty clearly no, but I wanted to use this old ad as evidence.

But those are just opinion. Only the actual text of the law is definitive, and I’ve already addressed that.

You might be right. I’d like to see one of those ads to be sure. I was pretty young at the time, so I may have misinterpreted.

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

If you take things out of a mail receptacle- Those things you put mail IN. You don’t take mail out of them unless you are a mail carrier.

No, the first quote is from Findlaw, whose opinions are pretty much backed by laws and case law.

They also cite:18 U.S.C. § 1701 - U.S. Code Title 18. Crimes and Criminal Procedure § 1701 | FindLaw
Whoever knowingly and willfully obstructs or retards the passage of the mail, or any carrier or conveyance carrying the mail, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than six months, or both.

Under federal law, it is illegal to intentionally stop a letter from being delivered to its intended recipient, and that may include not informing the U.S. Postal Service that you have another person’s mail. While U.S. Postal Inspectors aren’t likely to hunt you down for throwing away mail addressed to a previous tenant – especially if it’s spam – you should keep in mind that it is a federal crime to intentionally destroy another person’s mail.

Simply write “Return to Sender” or “Wrong Address” on the mail not addressed to you and put it in your nearest mailbox.

2. You Take Mail Not Addressed to You and Open It.

Maybe you live in an apartment complex and there is a communal mail area which often has a loose stack of letters for various tenants. If you snatch a letter that isn’t addressed to you and open it, you are committing mail theft.

Here is the issue- we are not lawyers. The laws are not written for non-lawyers to easily parse, and also, case law is often more important than the actual Code. Which is why Findlaw, written by lawyers, give you a LEGAL opinion, based upon both the Code and case law.

You’re missing the “irrelevant and duplicative parts”. Here’s how the law actually reads:

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
[emphasis added]

By a hyper-literal reading of that statute, if you “take” a letter addressed to you out of your mailbox, you’d be in violation, but in the total context of the rest of the language of the statute, it’s clear that “takes” refers to a dishonest taking, commensurate to stealing, abstracting, embezzling, destroying, or obtaining by fraud or deception.

Frankly, I’d agree that it’s not a terribly well written statute, but the intent seems clear enough, and the court interpretation seems even clearer.

The appeals court in the cited case makes its reasoning for upholding the defendant’s conviction clear, and it’s definitely not that he took a piece of mail out of his mailbox, it’s that he took a piece of mail out of his mailbox and kept it among his personal posessions, even though he knew full well it wasn’t addressed to him, and it therefore wasn’t his mail.

ETA:

In this case, the defendant was apparently actually convicted of violating the third paragraph:

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

It wasn’t simply that he took the piece of misaddressed mail out of his mailbox, it’s, again, that he hung onto it, opened it, and kept it in his possession (and also apparently used it commit credit card fraud), knowing full well it wasn’t actually his mail. The appeals court is pretty clear here - even if a piece of mail is delivered to you, if it’s not addressed to you, it isn’t yours, and it’s incumbent upon you to return it to the Postal Service, and you are not allowed to simply keep it.

I see. So this statute doesn’t apply to taking delivered mail out of your own mailbox, and the guy in the case above was innocent?

Laws are intended to be read hyper-literally (I assure you, the prosecutor will read the law hyper-literally if that means he gets to prosecute someone he wants to convict!). Every word has a specific, defined meaning. “Abstracts” does not imply dishonesty either. If they only meant “steal,” they would only have said “steal.”

Laws don’t work by “dude, you know what I meant!"

And just what part of what you quoted above indicates that it’s only illegal if you know it’s not addressed to you?

That doesn’t help. Here’s what that passage boils down to:

Whoever receives any letter which has been so taken, as herein described, knowing the same to have been taken, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.

So this is about somebody else taking the letter out of the mailbox, and giving it to you. So it looks like not only is everybody who checks the mail guilty of a Federal crime, everybody in the house who got mail is guilty!

[quote]It wasn’t simply that he took the piece of misaddressed mail out of his mailbox, it’s, again, that he hung onto it, opened it, and kept it in his possession (and also apparently used it commit credit card fraud), knowing full well it wasn’t actually his mail. [quote]

Those may be his behaviors that we don’t like, but there’s nothing I can see specifically in this statute that has to do with mail being misaddressed.

I’m not a lawyer. I’m not a legislator. I’m not a Postal Inspector. I’m not a prosecutor. I’m not a trial judge. I’m not an appellate court judge. I’m just some guy on the internet.

I’ve provided the cite for you to read yourself for a case directly on point. An individual received mail that wasn’t addressed to him, he opened it and kept it, and for doing so he was arrested, tried, and convicted, and his conviction was upheld on appeal.

I don’t know what else to tell you. Keeping misdelivered or misaddressed mail is clearly a violation of Federal law.

And, by the way, just to reiterate, I actually agree with you that the statute in question isn’t very clearly written. But it is what it is, and it’s applied and enforced the way it’s applied and enforced, and at the end of the day, as a matter of brute fact, if you keep mail that’s been delivered to which is addressed to you the Federal government does not consider that a crime, but if you keep mail that’s been delivered to you but was misdelivered or misaddressed and isn’t addressed to you, the Federal government clearly considers it a crime and you may be subject to arrest and prosecution.

I see. So this statute doesn’t apply to taking delivered mail out of your own mailbox, and the guy in the case above was innocent?

Like I said, opinions. The actual text of the law seems to contradict their opinion—you even acknowledged that, above.

They also cite:18 U.S.C. § 1701 - U.S. Code Title 18. Crimes and Criminal Procedure § 1701 | FindLaw
Whoever knowingly and willfully obstructs or retards the passage of the mail, or any carrier or conveyance carrying the mail, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than six months, or both.

But that doesn’t help. As with §1702, “obstructs or retards” would strongly seem to imply that if you took no action, the mail would have gotten to where it was going.

It seems highly unlikely that Congress would intend to criminalize inaction by writing laws that sound like they’re criminalizing action only.

And yet law must be comprehensible. We can’t just say, “we have no idea what is legal and illegal; we have to leave that to the licensed priesthood. Nulla poena sine lege certa

If there’s relevant case law, they should cite it. If not, it’s just their opinion based on the text. And unless there’s a definition of these terms somewhere that clarifies that they don’t mean what they seem like they mean (quite possible), it seems that, despite their opinion and common understanding, it’s difficult to make the actual, logical case that this is against the law.

Yes, I agree. Just like keeping any mail at all seems to be (unless “takes” is defined somewhere I haven’t seen). I just think that’s pretty insane.