Is it Legal to Open Someone Else’s Mail?

Many people wonder if it is against the law to open another person’s mail, even if the correspondence was mistakenly delivered to your mailbox or address. The general answer is, yes. If you recognize and/or understand that the mail is not intended for you, you should not open it. If you are caught opening mail that was intended for someone else, know that this is a federal crime and consequences for doing so can be severe.

Common Scenarios

Below are a few common situations when you receive the mail of another.

You accidentally open mail that was addressed to another person

It is not uncommon for most of us to grab our entire mail from our mailboxes and start automatically opening letters without thinking twice. Consequently, it is quite possible to mistakenly open up another person’s mail.

Understand that mistakenly opening the mail of another is not illegal. That being said, what you do with the correspondence after you realize it was not yours is critical. Federal law makes it illegal to intentionally stop a letter from being delivered to the intended recipient. In other words, failure to inform the U.S. Postal Service that you have the mail of another could be construed as intentionally stopping that letter from being delivered. Keep in mind it is also a federal crime to intentionally destroy the mail of another.

You grab mail that you know is not addressed to you and still open it  

This may happen if you live in an apartment complex and there is a communal area where there are letters for numerous tenants. Intentionally taking the mail of another is referred to as mail theft.

The potential prison time for intentionally grabbing a letter that is not addressed to you from somewhere other than your own mailbox is up to five years because it is a federal crime. That being said, if the intended recipient has passed away and his or her mail is piling you may take the mail and manage it as long as the intention is to either relinquish it to the deceased’s estate or forward the correspondence to a new address.

You are given permission by the owner because you are house-sitting

There is no need to worry if you are house-sitting and the homeowners asked that you take in the mail and  open anything that looks important. This is because you have the owner’s permission to open the mail.

Keep in mind that the federal law surrounding mail -- theft, obstruction, and destruction -- only applies to those who unlawfully receive and open the mail of another. If you mistakenly receive mail that is intended for another, simply write “return to sender” or “wrong address” across the envelope and place it in the nearest mailbox.

Legal Help in Las Vegas

While most people have a general understanding that it is against the law to open mail that is not addressed to you, many do not know how serious the consequences can be for breaking this federal law. If you or someone you know has any questions about this area of the law—or any other area of the law—contact Parry & Pfau today. These skilled Nevada attorneys can guide you and help you understand your rights and obligations under state and federal laws.

(image courtesy of Marius Christensen)