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Is it a crime to open someone else’s mail by mistake?

On Behalf of | Jan 9, 2024 | Firm News

The government takes the theft, opening or destruction of another person’s mail seriously. There is a good reason for this, given that mail, even when it is spam, usually contains sensitive information only meant for the recipient. However, if you have a stack of mail and start opening it mindlessly, it becomes easy to accidentally open mail intended for someone else.

Accidental vs. intentional: Understanding the distinction

Mails, postcards and other types of packages sometimes get mixed up. A person may find themselves with mail addressed to a previous tenant, or a courier may deliver a package to the wrong address by mistake.

Provided there is no malicious intent, the legal system typically does not treat the accidental opening of another person’s mail as a criminal act. However, intentionally misusing mail belonging to someone else may fall under obstruction of correspondence, mail tampering or mail fraud. Such actions can lead to severe consequences, including jail time.

Mail theft only applies to the unlawful receiving and opening of mail. Doing so is not a crime when you have the recipient’s consent.

Steps to take after receiving another person’s mail by mistake

While tempting, throwing away or destroying another person’s mail is a federal crime, punishable by up to five years imprisonment. Despite the inconvenience, the proper thing to do is return the misdelivered item. If you’ve already opened it, securely reseal the letter or package and mark it with “return to sender” or “wrong address”. Deposit the item in your outgoing mail or nearest mailbox.

Don’t take mail fraud lightly

Opening someone else’s mail is a violation of privacy. For this reason, the government places great importance on preventing the unauthorized tampering and opening of another person’s mail. It may not seem like a big deal, but this behavior can leave a mark on your criminal record.