Put mis-delivered mail in mailbox = Federal crime?

So our mailman is pretty sloppy and often puts the wrong mail in our mailboxes. The most common error is that one house on the street has no mail that day and then the rest of the street is one off (I get my neighbor’s mail). I simply walk over to their mailbox and put the mail in.

On our neighborhood forum someone was wanting the recipient to come to their house to pick it up because “putting mail in someone else’s mailbox is a federal crime”.

Is it really? Google didn’t give me a clear answer. From USPS.com:

*The U.S. Postal Service would like to warn people that only authorized U.S. Postal Service delivery personnel are allowed to place items in a mailbox. By law, a mailbox is intended only for receipt of postage-paid U.S. Mail. *

The first and second sentence say two different things. First they say only USPS are allowed to put anything in a mailbox, but the second sentence does not support the first. Going by the second sentence, anyone is allowed to put mail in a mailbox as long as the postage has been paid.

So what exactly does the law say? Am I breaking the law? Will the FBI be on my case?

I don’t think they are contradictory statements. The first statement clearly states who is authorized to put something in a mailbox, and the second statement states what items can be placed in that box. The second statement does not supersede the first.

Unlikely to be prosecuted, however, because it would require the PO to admit how much mail is mis-delivered every day. Oh, la publicité!

I don’t think you are breaking the law and I defy anyone to point to a statute they believe you are breaking or a similar case where anyone was charged.

Obstructing the mail is prohibited.
**18 U.S.C. 1701 says: **

But you didn’t obstruct the mail. Your mailman made a mistake that was not your fault. In fact, you are facilitating the mail.

It’s pretty obvious you can’t steal mail. It’s prohibited pretty broadly by 18 U.S.C. 1708.

But you didn’t steal the mail. Your mailman gave it to you.
You can’t open other people’s mail.
18 U.S. 1703(b) in relevant part says: **

But you didn’t open the mail you received.

U.S law generally prohibits you from dropping things in someone’s mailbox if postage hasn’t been paid on the item.

**18 U.S.C. 1725

But postage was paid on all the items you received, by the sender. It was just misdelivered.

Here is the closest possible violation. You can’t reuse (or sell for reuse) a used stamp.
**18 U.S.C. 1725 says: **

But you aren’t the one using the stamp. The sender used the stamp to send it to your neighbor. You are just continuing the job the post office failed to do. It defies reason to interpret this statute to apply to a person who correctly delivers mail that the post office failed to deliver when that person receives no benefit.

Am I violating the law if I put “Return to Sender” on an envelope and put it in my mailbox? What if I put an outgoing letter in the mailbox? You’re certainly allowed to do these things, so I think it’s gotta be OK to put your neighbor’s misdelivered mail in his mailbox.

The first sentence is not true. Two classes of people can clearly put items in a mailbox in the US:
(1) “delivery personnel” (as stated), and
(2) anyone else putting stamped mail into their own letterbox (for the delivery personnel to pick up).

Given that it is clearly false, as a statement of federal law, I would not rely on it to analyse other situations, like mis-delivered mail.

Thanks Tired and cranky for the detailed response. It does seem pretty definitive.

  1. The law is intended to keep competitors (like local delivery services) from using the mailboxes to undercut the USPO. They are also strict about political campaigns using them to distribute political literature. (But good campaigns are also opposed to that – you want the voter to know that some person took the time to come to their house personally to give them that campaign literature.)

So nobody is going to object if you put mis-directed mail into your neighbors’ mailbox. The neighbor’s glad to get it, the carrier is glad you helped out, the send is glad it got to the right address. The only person who might be concerned is the postal supervisor, who might like to know about mis-delivered mail (but they probably know it happens, and even have detailed statistics on it).

  1. Leaving outgoing, stamped mail in your own mailbox for the carrier to pick up is approved. when post office management stupidly removed all the mail collection boxes in our neighborhood, I started leaving outgoing letters in my mailbox frequently. One summer day I was working in the front yard when the carrier came by, and I apologetically asked her if that bothered her – she said “Absolutely not! We welcome the business”. I hadn’t looked at it that way, but it makes sense.


You might not want to advertise that the USPS removed the collection boxes.

AFTER I bought this place, I noticed concrete pads which had once (presumably) held USPS collection boxes.
I asked the carrier what happened.

  1. Theft from boxes
  2. Boxes used as trash receptacles
  3. Boxes used as urinals

Presumably, better neighborhoods kept their collection boxes.

This probably does not explain the “apartment complex” boxes now being used in SFD areas - those are just quicker to fill - drive to one stop vs. walk 4 blocks.

In my experience, leaving outgoing mail in your own mailbox is the standard way to send mail. Maybe it’s a regional thing, but in the places I’ve lived (all in Texas), that’s just what everyone does. We generally don’t have neighborhood mail collection boxes. There are a couple of collection boxes outside the post office itself.

You’ve probably noticed orange tubes attached below the box on rural mailbox posts. That is because the people there also receive a non-postally delivered newspaper, and the post office can and does crack down on routine delivery of non-postal items in the mailboxes. The newspaper route-man needs another receptacle for his delivery.

As I understand it, a “mailbox”, whatever its form, needs to be approved by the USPS in order for mail to be placed in it, and a condition of its approval is that it be reserved strictly for USPS-related correspondence. So there is a sort of tacit covenant, that the USPS agrees to put mail in your box, but you agree to honor the exclusivity…

This thread reminds me of my days as a Jehovah’s Witness. When we went out in “field service” (i.e., door-knocking), we were admonished never to leave literature in mailboxes because it was illegal. So we had to find ways of slipping magazines or tracts under the door, folding them and stuffing into the doorjamb, or some other way of leaving the literature (which was important, since we were required to report placements). I always felt guilty if a person had a mail slot in a door instead of a mailbox, but I would use it on the assumption that they couldn’t know for sure whether I had slipped the pamphlet through the slot or under the door.

The common collection boxes in my neighborhood have a dedicated “Outgoing Mail” slot. Easier on the carrier than having to check if the envelope left in the assigned slot for a resident is outgoing or if it is mail that wasn’t picked up.

One of my local mail carriers is very accurate, the rest not so much. I just put the misdelivered mail back in my mailbox and place the mailbox flag thingy upright so they can retrieve it before putting in my mail. I fantasize that the accurate mail carrier retrieves it and gives the rest of them a good chewing out.

What upsets the USPS is people or organizations delivering letters or packages to mailboxes without going through the post office. So, for example, a realtor who walked a neighborhood putting ads into mailboxes could get in trouble. Similarly, other delivery services such as UPS and FedEx are prohibited from delivering to mailboxes.

No one is going to get in trouble for putting mis-delivered mail into the right mailbox. The USPS doesn’t care because you’re not competing with them (i.e. they’ve already been paid). Also, even if it were technically illegal, it would create a huge political firestorm if they were to prosecute people for this.