If you pick up or open someone else's mail by accident, you don't need to worry about going to jail. These things happen, and all you have to do is return the mail to its rightful owner and apologize. However, intentionally tampering with mail that doesn't belong to you could have serious consequences. A single item of mail can contain very sensitive information that can destroy a person's life if it gets into the wrong hands.
Mail theft is a federal offense, and conviction of a federal crime can lead to prison time and fines. In addition to federal charges, you may also face charges under your state's criminal laws.
Definition of Tampering
Generally, criminal tampering is defined as tampering with property belonging to another with no right to do so, and with the intent to cause inconvenience or worse to that person. Theft, destruction and defacement of a piece of mail – a letter, postal card, package, box or bag – from a private mailbox, collection box, postal worker or mail truck is classified as mail tampering.
Federal Laws on Mail Tampering
Because the United States Postal Service is a federal agency, mailboxes are considered federal property, and mail theft is charged as a federal offense. If you are charged with mail theft, you could face up to five years in federal prison and fines of up to $250,000. It is also a crime to injure, deface or destroy any mail deposited in a mailbox. For each act of vandalism, you could be imprisoned for up to three years and fined up to $250,000. Depending on the manner in which the mail theft is committed, you could face other criminal charges, such as assault, and breaking and entering. If personal identifying information, such as names, dates of birth, addresses, telephone numbers, tax I.D. numbers, Social Security numbers and driver’s license numbers, was stolen you could also face identity theft charges.
State Laws on Mail Tampering
In addition to federal charges, you may face charges under your state’s criminal laws. For example, in California, mail theft is a crime that is specifically prohibited by the California Penal Code. It is a misdemeanor offense punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Other states don't have specific mail tampering laws, but mail tampering charges could be brought under other laws. For example, in New York, property damage crimes fall into one of two categories: criminal mischief and criminal tampering. You could be charged with criminal tampering in the third degree for mail tampering if the prosecution has probable cause that you tampered with the property of someone with the intent to cause substantial inconvenience. This is a Class B misdemeanor in New York punishable by up to 90 days in jail and fines.