15 Sep 23

Challenging Postal Inspector Requests for Customer Mail Records

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Last Updated on: 15th September 2023, 11:49 pm

Challenging Postal Inspector Requests for Customer Mail Records

The United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) is the law enforcement arm of the U.S. Postal Service. Postal inspectors have broad authority to investigate crimes related to the postal system, including mail fraud, identity theft, and prohibited mailings. As part of an investigation, postal inspectors may request access to an individual’s mail records through a process known as a “mail cover.”

A mail cover allows postal inspectors to record information on the outside of mailpieces, such as the name and address of the sender and recipient. This data can help inspectors gather evidence about criminal activity. However, critics argue that mail covers can violate privacy rights when used improperly or without sufficient oversight. Individuals who receive notice of a mail cover targeting their records do have some options to challenge the request.

What is a Mail Cover?

A mail cover is a investigative tool that allows postal inspectors to monitor and log information contained on the outside of mailpieces [1]. Specifically, inspectors can record the following data:

  • Name and address of the mail sender
  • Name and address of the mail recipient
  • Class of mail (such as first-class, priority, registered, certified, etc.)
  • Weight and size of the mailpiece

With a mail cover, inspectors do not open or inspect the contents inside of the mail. However, they can still gather useful investigative information based on mail metadata. For example, inspectors can identify communication patterns between suspects, or look for spikes in mail volume that may indicate illegal activity.

When Can Mail Covers Be Used?

Postal inspectors can only use mail covers when they have a reasonable grounds to suspect criminal activity [1]. Common postal crimes investigated using mail covers include:

  • Mail fraud
  • Identity theft
  • Narcotics trafficking
  • Obscenity and child pornography

Inspectors must submit a written request to a Chief Postal Inspector detailing the allegations of criminal activity. If approved, a mail cover can remain active for up to 120 days, with 30-day extensions available with additional evidence.

How Do Individuals Receive Notice of a Mail Cover?

Unlike a search warrant, postal inspectors are not required to notify individuals that their mail is being monitored with a mail cover. However, if inspectors do plan to use information collected from a mail cover as evidence to bring criminal charges, they must eventually provide notice to the individual [1].

This notice is usually provided if a case goes to trial. At that point, inspectors have to disclose the investigative techniques used, including any mail covers. Individuals may also proactively submit Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to determine if their mail has been monitored.

Challenging an Improper Mail Cover

There are several grounds on which an individual can challenge a mail cover used by postal inspectors:

Lack of Reasonable Grounds for Suspicion

As noted above, inspectors must demonstrate reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to justify a mail cover. However, some critics argue inspectors have too much leeway in this determination. If an individual has evidence the mail cover did not meet this criteria, they may be able to successfully challenge it [2].

Privacy Violations

Courts have disagreed on whether Americans have a reasonable expectation of privacy for information on the outside of their mail. Some argue mail covers sidestep Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure. These issues could potentially be raised to suppress evidence collected from an improper mail cover [2].

Exceeding Scope

Mail covers have strict limits on the types of information inspectors can record. If evidence shows they exceeded these limits, such as by documenting or reading contents inside of mail, it may be possible to challenge the mail cover as overly broad and improper [3].

Violations of Postal Regulations

Postal inspectors must follow specific regulations when requesting and implementing mail covers. Failing to adhere to these rules could make a mail cover invalid and open to challenge. For example, inspectors are required to minimize the amount of information collected and destroy records when a case closes [1].

FOIA Requests

Submitting FOIA requests is one way individuals can determine if their mail was monitored by USPIS. These requests can be used to obtain copies of investigative records, mail cover requests, and other documentation. Evidence of improper conduct uncovered through FOIA could support a challenge of the mail cover by an individual.

Oversight Issues

Critics argue that mail covers have inadequate oversight, making them ripe for abuse and privacy violations [1]. All mail cover requests are handled internally within USPIS. Some argue there should be external oversight, such as requiring judicial approval for mail covers like search warrants.

There are also concerns about how long USPIS retains mail cover data. Records can be maintained for up to 8 years, even if a case is closed. Tighter data retention policies could help protect privacy.

Recourse for Improper Mail Covers

If an individual can demonstrate a mail cover did not follow postal regulations or violated their Constitutional rights, they may be able to successfully challenge it. This could result in evidence being excluded from a criminal case.

However, there are limited options for recourse beyond the legal process. USPIS has broad protections from lawsuits under the Federal Tort Claims Act. This limits the ability to take civil action even if a mail cover was unlawfully obtained or executed.

In summary, individuals can challenge improper mail covers targeting their records, but oversight and accountability of this investigative tool remains limited. Reform advocates argue that stricter regulations, enhanced transparency, and independent oversight could help balance law enforcement powers with privacy rights.


[1] United States Postal Inspection Service. “Publication 146: A Law Enforcement Guide to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.” August 2015.

[2] Electronic Privacy Information Center. “EPIC Comments to the U.S. Postal Investigative Service on Using U.S.P.S. Customer Data for Law Enforcement.” January 18, 2022.

[3] Homeland Security Digital Library. “Publication 146: A Law Enforcement Guide to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.” August 2015.