Federal government laws regarding the United States Postal Service (USPS) can be found in Title 18 Chapter 83 of the U.S. Code. This is the section of the federal statute that covers crimes and criminal procedures relating to the delivery of mail. Rules and procedures for the USPS can be found on the agency’s website.
Crime to Withhold Mail
An individual who carries, collects or receives a letter or a packet in a manner contrary to federal law may be fined and imprisoned up to 30 days. An individual who knowingly and willfully obstructs or slows the passage of mail, or a carrier or conveyance carrying the mail such as a mail person or mail truck, may be fined and imprisoned up to six months. An individual who takes a letter or package from a post office, mail carrier or authorized depository before it has been delivered to the addressee with the intent to obstruct the correspondence, pry into the business of another or embezzle, or who opens or destroys the mail may be fined and imprisoned up to five years.
A U.S. postal service officer or employee who destroys, delays or opens a letter or piece of mail entrusted to them that was intended to be delivered by authority of the postmaster general or postal service may be fined and imprisoned up to five years. A postal service officer or employee who improperly destroys, delays or permits another person to open mail or a package of newspapers may be fined and imprisoned up to one year.
A person who steals any mail from a mail receptacle or post office may be fined and imprisoned up to five years. A person who has taken charge of mail and voluntarily quits or deserts before they have delivered it to the post office or an agent of the USPS at the termination of the route may be fined and imprisoned up to one year.
Postal Regulations for Prohibited and Restricted Mail
USPS considers air bags, ammunition, explosives, gasoline or marijuana for medical or recreational use to be domestically prohibited, non-mailable items. Hemp and cannabidiol (CBD) are allowed, but restricted. Domestically restricted items, which must be mailed under certain conditions, include aerosols, alcoholic beverage, cigarettes, cigars and tobacco, cremated remains, dry ice, firearms, fragile items, glues, hand sanitizer, lithium batteries, live animals, matches, medicines and prescription drugs, nail polish, paint, perfumes, perishable items and poisons.
When There’s No Mail Delivery Service
If a customer is not receiving any mail or a certain piece of mail, they should go to their local post office with all information regarding the delay and bring pieces of mail that they have. Their local post office can investigate the matter and determine the reason for the delay or failure to deliver. If a mail carrier has refused to deliver the mail, the reason for the refusal should be documented, dated and communicated to the customer.
Reasons the post office is not delivering mail materials include a blocked mailbox, a full mailbox, hazardous conditions or natural disasters, travel obstructions, or a dog on the premises. A customer should ensure that a postal employee can access their mail receptacle. This may involve removing snow from around the mailbox and moving a vehicle that may be blocking the mailbox.
Receiving Mail if the Mailbox is Full
If a mail receptacle is full, the letter carrier will leave a “we will re-deliver for you” form in the receptacle and take the overflow mail to the local post office location for pickup. This office will hold the accumulated mail for up to 10 days. After 10 days, the mail is returned to the sender.
The recipient can get the overflow mail by scheduling a re-delivery using PS Form 3849. A person must be available to receive the overflow mail when the mail carrier makes the re-delivery. The recipient can also pick up the overflow mail from the local post office. They will need to bring a photo ID for pickup.
Road or Sidewalk Conditions Obstructing Mail Delivery
The persons responsible for road maintenance on the road where the mail receptacle is located need to be notified of road conditions that obstruct the delivery of mail. If the repairs are not made promptly, the postal service can withdraw mail service. An owner with a dog that is limiting the mail carrier’s access to the mailbox should confine their dog during delivery hours. If they do not do so, delivery may be suspended.
The postal service can delay or curtail service if streets or walkways present hazardous conditions to carriers or vehicles. USPS service alerts provide information to consumers, small businesses and business mailers about hazardous conditions that could prevent mail delivery. If accumulated snow prevents a carrier from reaching a box, the recipient may choose an alternative to delivery. Options include arranging with a neighbor to receive mail, putting up a suitable temporary mailbox, like a sturdy box, meeting the carrier at the box and picking up their mail at the local post office.
When Mail Is Delayed
A package may be delayed or rerouted because of unusual circumstances. A recipient should check the mail delivery standards for their class of mail, the USPS tracking page if there was tracking on the package, or contact the shipper for further information. A delivery should typically be made by 5 p.m. local time Monday through Saturday.
Unusual circumstances that could delay a package delivery include traffic, staffing fluctuations, severe weather, a natural disaster or a change in carrier route. Priority Mail Express items and Amazon parcels may be delivered on Sundays.
Typical Postal System Delivery Timelines
Typical delivery times for mail are one to five business days for first-class mail; one to three business days for first-class package service; one to three business days for priority mail; one to two calendar days for priority mail express; two to eight business days for USPS retail ground; two to eight business days for package services, including media mail, bound printed matter and library mail; two to nine business days for parcel select and parcel select lightweight; three to nine business days for periodicals; and three to 10 business days for USPS marketing mail.
None of these delivery time frames are guaranteed. USPS retail ground, package services, parcel select and parcel select lightweight, and periodicals may have longer time frames if the delivery is to Alaska, Hawaii or the U.S. Territories. The estimate will be provided by the postage price calculator.
When a magazine or periodical is late, the subscriber should contact the publisher to see if they have the subscriber’s correct information and make sure that the subscription has not expired. An individual should communicate with their local post office if their mail is late. There may be identifying marks on an envelope that explain the cause of a delay. The recipient should record the delivery date on the envelope and show it to staff at their local post office.
What Is Mail Fraud?
Mail fraud is a scheme to get money or something of value from a customer by offering a product, service or investment opportunity that does not live up to its claims. A prosecutor must prove the sender intentionally misrepresented the claims. They must also prove the mail was used to carry out the scheme.
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service’s website provides alerts and information on the most commonly reported mail fraud schemes. An individual who has been a victim of mail fraud can fill out a mail fraud complaint form online. They can also call the U.S. Postal Inspection Service hotline at 800-372-8347 to file a complaint about suspected mail fraud.
Theft of Mail as a State Crime
A state may define mail theft as a criminal offense punishable by state law. For example, California Penal Code Section 530.5(e) provides that the penalty for mail theft is a fine and incarceration up to one year. If the item is of value, the offender may also be convicted of petty theft if the value is $950 or less, or grand theft if the value exceeds $950.
States have different penalties for petty theft and grand theft. California’s penalty for petty theft is a fine up to $1,000 and up to six months in jail. Its penalty for grand theft is a fine up to $1,000 and up to one year in jail. There are more severe penalties for felony grand theft. An offender who has trespassed onto another party’s property to steal mail may also be convicted of trespassing, which carries a penalty of a fine up to $1,000 and up to six months in jail.
Refusal to Accept Mail
A recipient does not always have to accept mail. Mail refusal options include marking a piece of mail “refused” and returning it unopened within a reasonable time. The recipient can also put the piece of mail in a new envelope or wrapper with the correct address and new postage to return it to the sender. A recipient cannot refuse certain mail after it has been delivered.
The items that a recipient cannot refuse include pieces sent as registered mail, insured, certified mail and collect on delivery (COD). The customer may pay postage for such mail to be returned. A recipient cannot refuse response mail to a sales promotion, solicitation, announcement or other advertisement that they did not refuse when it was offered.
A customer may refuse accountable mail prior to signing for and receiving it. They should check the box marked “refused” on the back of the delivery notice, sign their name by the “X” and put the mail back in their mailbox.
Stopping "Junk Mail"
A recipient can remove their name from mailing lists by registering for a domestic mail suppression service called DMAchoice. This service is offered by the Association of National Advertisers. The Association is independent of USPS. There is a $2 charge for online registration and a $3 charge for mail-in registration. The service does not eliminate all promotional mail. Equifax, Experian and TransUnion also offer a name removal option for pre-screened offers at 888-5-OPT-OUT (888-567-8688) or www.optoutprescreen.com.
Classes of U.S. Mail
The postal service types mail into different services called classes. Priority mail express is for anything mailable, letters and merchandise. Priority mail is for anything mailable, bills, invoices, personal correspondence and merchandise.
First-class mail is for anything mailable, bills, invoices, personal correspondence and merchandise. Periodicals is for newsletters and magazines. USPS marketing mail is for advertisements, circulars, newsletters, small parcels and merchandise. Package services and USPS retail ground is for merchandise, catalogs, printed material and computer media.
Prohibitions on Postal Service Property
Federal law governs the activities that can occur on postal service property. A person under the influence of alcohol or any drug defined as a controlled substance may not enter postal service property or operate a motor vehicle on postal service property. The possession, sale or use of any controlled substance, except when allowed by law, or the sale or use of any alcoholic beverage, except as authorized by the Postmaster General or designee, on postal service premises is prohibited.
Smoking is not allowed in all postal service buildings and office spaces, including public lobbies. Other activities restricted on postal service property include gambling, soliciting, tabling, leafleting and public assembly.
- 18 U.S. Code Chapter 83: Postal Service
- U.S.P.S.com: No Mail Delivery?
- USPS.com: Domestic Shipping Prohibitions & Restrictions
- USPS.com: Mail Fraud
- U.S. Postal Inspection Service: Mail Fraud Complaint
- USPS.com Refuse Unwanted Mail and Remove Name From Mailing Lists
- USPS.com: Classes of Mail
- USPS.: USPS Tracking
- USPS.com: Retail Postage Price Calculator
- California Penal Code: Section 530.5, False Personation and Cheats
- California Penal Code: Section 484, Larceny, Petty Theft
- California Penal Code: Section 487, Larceny, Grand Theft
- California Penal Code: Section 602, Malicious Mischief
Jessica Zimmer is a journalist and attorney based in northern California. She has practiced in a wide variety of fields, including criminal defense, property law, immigration, employment law, and family law.