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Mail Tampering Charges: Understanding the Elements and Building a Defense

Mail Tampering Charges: Understanding the Elements and Building a Defense

Getting charged with a mail-related crime can be scary. Prosecutors often portray these charges as very serious. But with the right defense, you can fight them.

This article will break down the key elements prosecutors must prove for common mail tampering crimes. It will also discuss potential defenses to build your case.

Elements of Mail Theft

One of the most common mail crimes is mail theft under 18 U.S.C. Section 1708. This law makes it illegal to steal mail from places like a mailbox, post office, or postal carrier.

To convict you of mail theft, prosecutors must prove these elements beyond a reasonable doubt:

  • You took mail, or something contained inside mail, that did not belong to you
  • You knew the mail was not addressed to you
  • You intended to deprive the rightful owner of their mail
  • The mail was in the custody of the U.S. Postal Service

The mail has to be in USPS custody when stolen. This includes theft from mailboxes, apartment mailrooms, or postal trucks. It does not include taking mail off someone’s porch.

Prosecutors also need evidence you knew the mail wasn’t yours. Your defense can argue there was an honest mistake if you can show you believed the mail was intended for you.

Penalties for Mail Theft

Mail theft penalties under federal law are:

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  • Up to 5 years in prison and fines for theft from an individual’s mailbox
  • Up to 10 years in prison for theft from any “authorized depository” like apartment boxes

These charges can stack if you’re accused of multiple thefts. The penalties get harsher if firearms are stolen from the mail.

Elements of Mail Fraud

Another common federal mail crime is mail fraud under 18 U.S.C. Section 1341. This law makes it illegal to use the mail to further a fraudulent scheme designed to deprive victims of money or property.

The elements prosecutors must prove for mail fraud include:

  • You participated in a scheme to defraud or obtain money through false statements
  • You acted knowingly and with intent to defraud
  • You used the mail, or interstate carriers like FedEx, to further the scheme

It does not matter if your scheme succeeded. Just the intent to defraud is enough. Any mailing used to communicate or further the scheme can trigger charges.

Penalties for Mail Fraud

Maximum penalties for mail fraud under federal law are:

  • Up to 20 years in prison
  • Fines of up to $250,000 for individuals or $500,000 for organizations

Longer sentences can apply for schemes with major losses or vulnerable victims.

Elements of Mail Tampering

Mail tampering under 18 U.S.C. Section 1702 involves interfering with someone else’s mail. This includes crimes like:

  • Opening mail addressed to someone else
  • Destroying or hiding another person’s mail
  • Forging or altering contents of mail

To prove mail tampering, prosecutors must establish:

  • You opened, destroyed, hid, or forged someone else’s mail
  • You acted knowingly and willfully
  • The mail was not addressed to you
  • You had no authority to engage with the mail

Your defense can argue there was a mistake or you had a lawful reason for handling the mail. For example, parents can legally open their minor child’s mail.

Penalties for Mail Tampering

Maximum penalties under federal law for mail tampering are:

  • Up to 5 years in prison
  • Fines up to $250,000 for individuals or $500,000 for organizations

Using Lack of Criminal Intent in Your Defense

For all these mail crimes, prosecutors must prove you acted with criminal intent. This means purposely intending to break the law – not just by mistake.

Your defense strategy can leverage lack of intent. For example, you can argue:

  • You mistakenly thought a piece of mail was yours
  • There was no intent or plan to defraud anyone
  • You had lawful authority over the mail in question

Raising doubt about intent can defeat the charges or help negotiate a better plea deal.

Using a Good Faith Defense

Another common defense is arguing you acted in “good faith.” Examples for mail crimes include:

  • You honestly believed you had consent to open or dispose of someone’s mail
  • You were truthful about your identity when applying for mail or benefits
  • You did not realize mailings furthered an unlawful scheme

While ignorance or mistake of law is not a full defense, good faith can show you did not have intent to commit a crime.

Arguing You Were Not Involved

Since prosecutors must prove your individual actions, you can defeat mail defeat mail tampering charges by showing you were not involved. Potential defenses include:

  • You have an alibi proving you were elsewhere at the time
  • Another person has admitted guilt for the crime
  • There is no evidence like fingerprints or video connecting you
  • You were physically incapable of committing the act

If prosecutors lack evidence you personally tampered with or stole mail, the charges should be dismissed. Your attorney can file a motion arguing there is insufficient evidence.

Using Discovery to Undermine the Prosecution

Discovery is the pre-trial evidence sharing process in criminal cases. The prosecution must disclose their evidence, witness statements and other documents to the defense [1].

Your attorney can review the discovery for inconsistencies and weaknesses to attack. For example, they can:

  • Challenge eyewitness accounts that conflict or are unreliable
  • Object to evidence that was obtained illegally
  • Point out errors in police reports
  • Raise doubt about the chain of custody of physical evidence

In some cases, the discovery materials themselves can establish reasonable doubt about your guilt when carefully scrutinized.

Getting Charges Dismissed

There are various processes your defense lawyer can use to get charges thrown out before trial:

  • Motion to Dismiss – Argues there are legal defects like lack of evidence or expired statute of limitations.
  • Preliminary Hearing – Requires prosecutors to show probable cause you committed the crime.
  • Grand Jury – Requires prosecutors to prove grounds for the indictment.
  • Suppression Hearings – Seeks to exclude illegally obtained evidence.

Dismissing the case at an early stage avoids the cost and stress of a full trial. An experienced criminal defense lawyer knows how to strategically employ these options.


Facing mail theft, fraud or tampering charges can be overwhelming. But understanding the elements prosecutors must prove, and leveraging strong defense strategies, can help you fight the case and achieve the best outcome possible.

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