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I observed a CCTV recording of my neighbor going through the mailbox and taking items belonging to me. Is there a law against this?

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    – Dale M
    Feb 12 at 3:02

4 Answers 4

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United States

In the , the neighbor has committed a federal crime and can be imprisoned for up to five years.

18 U.S. Code § 1708 - Theft or receipt of stolen mail matter gen­erally:

Whoever steals, takes... or attempts so to obtain, from or out of any... letter box [or] mail receptacle,... any letter, postal card, package, bag, or mail... [s]hall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.

Canada

In , the neighbor has committed an offence and can be imprisoned for up to ten years.

Criminal Code section 356 (1) - Theft from mail

Everyone commits an offence who
    (a) steals
        (i) anything sent by post... after it is delivered but before it is in the possession of the addressee or of a person who may reasonably be considered to be authorized by the addressee to receive mail...

The penalty is set in section 356 (3) - Punishment:

Everyone who commits an offence under subsection (1)
    (a) is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term of not more than 10 years; or
    (b) is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction.

United Kingdom

In , the neighbor is guilty of theft and can be imprisoned for up to seven years. I did not find a specific law dealing with mail theft, but this is covered by the regular theft law.

The Theft Act 1968, Section 1(1) says,

A person is guilty of theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it...

Section 7 of the same act as amended by the Criminal Justice Act 1991 says,

A person guilty of theft shall on conviction on indictment be liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding seven years.

(The Criminal Justice Act 1991 reduced the maximum prison term from ten years to seven.)

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  • 4
    You totally forget obstruction of correspondence
    – Trish
    Feb 9 at 8:30
  • 9
    And then the United States Postal Inspection Service will come after you -- protecting your parcels since before the revolution, as one of about two dozen federal police agencies you never wanted to hear from! Feb 9 at 12:53
  • 2
    Doesn't this prohibit taking your own mail out of your own mailbox (or is that not "taking")? It's of course illegal for a neighbor to steal your mail, but I wonder if they can legally take mis-delivered mail addressed to them out of your mailbox. Feb 9 at 13:15
  • 1
    @NuclearHoagie I agree. One path through the syntactic branches of §1708 reads "Whoever takes from any mail receptacle any letter shall be fined under this title or imprisoned." I think everybody just scrolled through that EULA without reading it. I remember that early attempts to put the laws in an information retrieval system and apply it to cases with early AI incarnations failed because the law is not consistent enough. Feb 9 at 13:30
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    @Trish That law seems to require an element of intent, which we don't actually know in this case - the text of that law indicates it's only obstruction of correspondence if you take the mail with the design of withholding it from the intended recipient in some way. It would not be obstruction of correspondence to take a letter addressed to you out of someone else's mailbox, nor to bring in your mail and find someone else's mis-delivered letter in the stack, nor to bring a neighbor's mail from their box to their front door. Feb 9 at 14:43
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Theft of mail is a Commonwealth offence punishable by up to 10 years gaol. Theft in general, which includes theft of mail, is also a state or territory crime in each sub-jurisdiction - penalties vary.

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At first glance, mail is nothing special. Taking it is theft:

§ 242 StGB:

  1. Wer eine fremde bewegliche Sache einem anderen in der Absicht wegnimmt, die Sache sich oder einem Dritten rechtswidrig zuzueignen, wird mit Freiheitsstrafe bis zu fünf Jahren oder mit Geldstrafe bestraft.
  2. Der Versuch ist strafbar.

Translation:

  1. Anyone who takes another person's movable property with the intention of unlawfully appropriating the property for himself or a third party shall be liable to a custodial sentence not exceeding five years or to a monetary penalty.
  2. The attempt is punishable.

Now, mail is special in regards to opening it:

§ 202 StGB:

  1. Wer unbefugt
  • einen verschlossenen Brief oder ein anderes verschlossenes Schriftstück, die nicht zu seiner Kenntnis bestimmt sind, öffnet oder
  • sich vom Inhalt eines solchen Schriftstücks ohne Öffnung des Verschlusses unter Anwendung technischer Mittel Kenntnis verschafft, wird mit Freiheitsstrafe bis zu einem Jahr oder mit Geldstrafe bestraft, wenn die Tat nicht in § 206 mit Strafe bedroht ist.
  1. Ebenso wird bestraft, wer sich unbefugt vom Inhalt eines Schriftstücks, das nicht zu seiner Kenntnis bestimmt und durch ein verschlossenes Behältnis gegen Kenntnisnahme besonders gesichert ist, Kenntnis verschafft, nachdem er dazu das Behältnis geöffnet hat.
  2. Einem Schriftstück im Sinne der Absätze 1 und 2 steht eine Abbildung gleich.

Translation:

  1. whoever without authorization
  • opens a sealed letter or other sealed document that is not intended for his knowledge, or
  • obtains knowledge of the contents of such a document by technical means without opening the seal, shall be liable to a custodial sentence not exceeding one year or to a monetary penalty if the offense is not punishable under section 206.
  1. Any person who, without authorization, obtains knowledge of the contents of a document which is not intended for his knowledge and which is specially secured against disclosure by a sealed container, after having opened the container for this purpose, shall also be punished.
  2. an image shall be deemed equivalent to a document within the meaning of paragraphs 1 and 2.

I am not going to quote the whole §206 mentioned here. To summarize it: §202 does not apply to actual postal workers, they are punished even harder for doing this in §206.

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  • And in case you wonder why the German law is so orthogonal and the American law is so byzantine (wire fraud! Postal Inspection Service!): Most criminal legislation is state authority; only in interstate commerce and a few other areas does the constitution give the authority to the federal government to make laws, so they have to use these back doors. Health insurance could only be instated through the interstate commerce back door. Feb 9 at 23:57
  • So reading my postcards is legally fine?
    – gnasher729
    Feb 12 at 9:16
  • §202 punishes opening a letter or opening a mailbox or using technical means (lets say a camera) to spy inside an envelope or mailbox. §206 punished postal workers, who would have access. So postcards are always protected this way, because only postal workers see them outside of mailboxes. But in theory, if you write a postcard in big enough letters that they can be seen without technical means in some artsy see-through glass mailbox, or you wave them around in public before bringing them to the post office, then it's fair game... I mean you cannot punish people for reading in public.
    – nvoigt
    Feb 12 at 9:41
  • @gnasher729: Yes, precisely. The special protection ("Briefgeheimnis") only applies to sealed documents, as quoted above, it does not apply to postcards.
    – sleske
    Mar 21 at 13:20
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In addition to theft as described in this answer, and assuming that the neighbour took items which were addressed to you, this can amount to an offence under Section 84 of the Postal Services Act 2000:

(1) A person commits an offence if, without reasonable excuse, he—

(a) intentionally delays or opens a postal packet in the course of its transmission by post, or

(b) intentionally opens a mail-bag.

As set out above, there is a defence if the neighbour has a "reasonable excuse".

If instead the neighbour took items addressed to themself, the act of entering your land could still amount to trespass. This is a civil tort.

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    If it's been delivered, it is surely not "in the course of its transmission by post"
    – abligh
    Feb 11 at 11:31

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