Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Is my mailbox federal property?

“You know, a person’s mailbox is federal property, and it is against the law for anyone other than a postal carrier to put anything in it.” Have you ever heard that and wondered whether it is true, or just an urban myth?  The first time I really wanted to know the answer was in high school – the pre-Google era.

As a classroom exercise in my high school speech class, each student was required to draft a piece of legislation and defend it during a mock congressional session.  Everyone seemed to relish the drafting part of the assignment, dreaming up new laws for their imaginary government to impose upon unruly worker bees.  Some pieces of legislation consisted of sections and sub-sections requiring multiple pages of scribbled notebook paper.

I took a different approach.  My sixteen years of life experience had already led me to the conclusion that we had too many laws, so rather than contriving a new one, I proposed that an existing law be repealed.  This required considerably less drafting time, since it could be effected with a single sentence: “39 CFR 310, entitled Enforcement of the Private Express Statutes, is hereby repealed.”

Okay, maybe I didn’t know the specific Code of Federal Regulation citation, at the time, but I knew that such a regulation existed.  Here is the relevant portion, as it still reads today:

§ 310.2 Unlawful carriage of letters. 
(a) It is generally unlawful under the Private Express Statutes for any person other than the Postal Service in any manner to send or carry a letter on a post route or in any manner to cause or assist such activity. Violation may result in injunction, fine or imprisonment or both and payment of postage lost as a result of the illegal activity.

This regulation protects the U.S. Postal Service’s monopoly over the delivery of first class letters.  UPS and Federal Express are permitted to compete with the USPS in the delivery of packages and express mail, but they are prohibited by federal law from delivering Christmas cards and utility bills.

Notice that this prohibition is not limited to commercial carriers.  It applies to “any person” who “in any manner” sends or carries a letter on “a post route.”  Of course, everywhere in the United States that there is a domicile is a “post route,” as the USPS itself is quick to boast.  So read literally, this regulation prohibits you from hand-delivering to your neighbor an invitation to a block party.  Committing this legal activity could result in your fine or imprisonment, as well as your being required to pay the forty-nine cents that rightfully belongs to the USPS.

The USPS has never attempted such an absurd enforcement of the law, but local post officials have gone after businesses that have used private delivery services to distribute their ads.
When I stood to advocate for my proposed legislation in speech class, the primary argument leveled against me was that private carriers would be unable to deliver mail to customers’ existing mailboxes because . . . well, everyone knows that those mailboxes are federal property, and it would be against the law for private carriers to touch them.

I responded by saying that if that is indeed a law, the private carriers and their customers will be capable of working out a solution.  As is so common in life, it wasn’t until much later that I thought of a more cogent reply: “If that is indeed a law, then we can repeal it, as well.  Repealing two stupid laws is as easy as repealing one stupid law.  Your suggested amendment to my proposed bill is accepted.”

This week, I once again heard someone whine that a federal crime had been committed when someone (a client of mine) dared to place a letter in his mailbox.  Now living in the Google era, it was easy enough for me to search out the law and confirm that, yes, such a stupid law exists.  It is found under 18 U.S.C. § 1725:

Whoever knowingly and willfully deposits any mailable matter such as statements of accounts, circulars, sale bills, or other like matter, on which no postage has been paid, in any letter box established, approved, or accepted by the Postal Service for the receipt or delivery of mail matter on any mail route with intent to avoid payment of lawful postage thereon, shall for each such offense be fined under this title.

Furthermore, here’s what Section 508.3.1.3 of the Postal Service’s Domestic Mail Manual says about delivering letters or other material yourself:

No part of a mail receptacle may be used to deliver any matter not bearing postage, including items or matter placed upon, supported by, attached to, hung from, or inserted into a mail receptacle. Any mailable matter not bearing postage and found as described above is subject to the same postage as would be paid if it were carried by mail.

The maximum fine for each offense is $5,000 for individuals and $10,000 for organizations.

Some will argue that the restriction is a security measure, and that it serves to protect you and me from satellite dish salesmen and al-Qaeda, but when read in conjunction with the Private Express Statute quoted above, the true purpose of the restriction is clear – guarding the monopoly.  According to the Government Accountability Office, the restriction serves to “protect postal revenue by preventing delivery of unstamped matter to mailboxes.”

The U. S. Supreme Court, in a 1981 decision, rejected a First Amendment challenge to the restriction.  The Court reasoned that, “the postal customer, although he pays for the physical components of the ‘authorized depository,’ agrees to abide by the Postal Service’s regulations in exchange for the Postal Service agreeing to deliver and pick up his mail.” Here the Court is saying that once you stick a mailbox in your front yard, you have implicitly designated it as federal territory, at which point the federal government is empowered to proscribe the use of that territory.  Of course, no federal statute actually states this, but Justice Rhenquist, otherwise known for advocating judicial restraint, manages to find this implication within the law.

Admittedly, I do not want anyone and everyone to feel free to stuff my mailbox with circulars, tracts and manifestos.  (My mailbox is already amply stuffed by the postman with the same.)  I can also think of practical advantages in limiting access to mailboxes, some of which are identified in the Supreme Court decision.  But guarding the Postal Service against competition is the real purpose.

So it is not urban myth, but it is a stupid law.

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