Mail often contains items that contain personal information that could be problematic if it got into the wrong hands. It can be a concern for many homeowners as there is often a considerable delay between the time mail gets delivered until it gets collected from the mailbox.
Mailboxes and the mail inside are protected under federal law. Once a mailbox is set up in a USPS-approved position, it effectively belongs to the government. It is illegal for anyone besides a postal official and lawful recipient of the mail to access the mailbox and its contents.
The laws surrounding the setup and use of mailboxes are pretty specific, and there are heavy penalties for violations. While it may feel like a good idea to pop a private note into your neighbor’s mailbox, you may need to think twice and either attach a postage stamp and mail it or hand it to them in person.
Are Mailboxes Federal Property?
Mailboxes are pretty standard items outside most homes. They can be plain, colorful, or even decorated and add to the overall curb appeal of a property.
While a mailbox can be decorated and themed to match the house that it serves, from the moment it is installed in an approved USPS position, it is considered federal property. Federal property includes any land or property owned, leased, or occupied by any department or agency of the United States.
While the homeowner might have purchased the mailbox and it belongs to them while it is stored in an attic or repainted in the garage, if it is in position to receive mail from USPS, it automatically becomes a space leased by a federal agency. It is therefore protected from vandalism or theft, and offenders can be fined or may even receive prison sentences.
The USPS has an Inspection service that investigates reports of mail theft, vandalism of mailboxes, or even theft of entire mailboxes. Anyone convicted of the destruction of federal property could be fined up to $250,000 or face lengthy prison terms of up to three years.
Mailboxes are often damaged in pranks, for example, kids dropping a firecracker into the slot. Because of the valuable nature of mail, this could have serious repercussions if important mail gets destroyed. Homeowners can protect their mailboxes as follows:
- Report acts of vandalism to Postal Inspectors
- Advise the police if you notice someone actively tampering with a mailbox
- Ensure that your kids know the consequences of damaging mailboxes
Because mailboxes are federally owned items, homeowners are protected from everyone, from the likes of hardened identity criminals to nosy neighbors who may like to snoop through your mail.
No one, except the mail carrier and the homeowner, is legally permitted to access or remove items from your mailbox.
What Can and Can’t Be Placed in a Mailbox?
Mailboxes are for items of mail that have the correct postage attached and are the delivery point to specific addressees. If the mailbox has a carrier flag or outgoing mail has been placed inside the unit for collection, it must comply with size and weight specifications and contain the correct prepaid postage stamps.
Let’s look at what can and can’t be placed inside a mailbox.
|Things that can be placed in a mailbox
|Things you cannot put into anyone’s mailbox
|Properly stamped outgoing mail
|Incorrectly delivered mail. If the mail carrier made an error and you have a letter that should be in your neighbor’s mailbox, you can place it in their box. However, you may not go through their mailbox or open their mail.
|Private letters or notes that have not been sent via the postal service
|USPS carriers can deliver postage-paid mail to your mailbox
|Political campaigning flyers
In short, you may not place any item into any mailbox if no postage has been paid. If postage is affixed, it should be delivered by the postal service to the address indicated on the mail.
Who Can Legally Check Your Mailbox?
Only authorized employees of the US Postal Service are allowed to place items into a mailbox or collect outgoing mail that has prepaid postage stamps attached.
It is the homeowner’s responsibility to check and remove mail from their mailbox regularly. In fact, the Fourth Amendment even prohibits police officers may not search through your mail without a valid search warrant granted by a magistrate or judge.
In cases where a homeowner may be away for a while and doesn’t want mail piling up in the mailbox, USPS offers a Hold Mail Service for up to 30 days. This is a sensible option for anyone going on a trip to avoid having an overflowing mailbox.
Who Can Put Mail in Your Mailbox?
Two parties can legally put mail into your mailbox:
- The USPS mail carrier who is delivering mail that contains the correct postage, which is addressed to that mailbox.
- The only other person that can put mail into your mailbox is you – if you have a full-service mailbox that allows outgoing mail. All outgoing mail must have correct paid-for postage stamps affixed. Outgoing letters can be placed inside your mailbox for collection on the mail carrier’s next round.
If you have received a letter addressed to your neighbor in error in your mailbox, you may pop it into their mailbox or hand it back to the postal carrier. Letters delivered in error must never be opened.
If you suspect that a piece of your mail has erroneously landed in your neighbors, you may not go and search through their mailbox. That would be illegal.
You would need to wait for your neighbor to remove your letter and hand it to you, or you could request that the letter carrier checks when next he moves past their box, but under no circumstances may you retrieve mail out of someone else’s mailbox.
It is illegal for any person other than a postal employee or mailbox owner to place anything into your mailbox.
Mailboxes are federal property. From the moment they are set in position in the space approved by the USPS for mail delivery and collection, the mailbox becomes a space leased by the government.
It is therefore illegal for anyone other than the mailbox owner or representatives of the postal service to access the contents of the mailbox.
I have a bachelor’s degree in construction engineering. When I’m not constructing or remodeling X-Ray Rooms, Cardiovascular Labs, and Pharmacies…I’m at home with my wife, two daughters and a dog. Outside of family, I love grilling and barbequing on my Big Green Egg and working on projects around the house.