“Just Remember, When You Control The Mail, You Control . . . Information.”

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)


Whenever it snows, we shovel out a little area in front of our mailbox because we heard that if the mail carrier cannot easily get to your mailbox, then he won't deliver your mail. This has always annoyed me, but not so much that I ever thought of suing our mailman. The same cannot be said of the plaintiff in Finnemen v. Pollard, who filed a federal lawsuit against his mail carrier for refusing to deliver his mail because his mailbox was broken.
The facts in Finnemen are a little sketchy, as plaintiff appeared pro se. Plaintiff's mail carrier, Defendant Maurice Pollard, told plaintiff that he would no longer deliver mail to plaintiff because plaintiff's mailbox was broken. When plaintiff went to the post office, defendant, Jamar (no last name), allegedly told defendant, Janine (also no last name), that plaintiff's mail could not be delivered because of the broken mailbox. Plaintiff claims that this was "a lie" but does not contest that his mailbox was broken. Regardless, Plaintiff alleged that defendants tampered with his mail because, when he visited the post office, he was sometimes able to pick up his mail and sometimes there was no mail for him to pick up. Plaintiff sued under Section 1983, alleging that his civil rights had been infringed by the individual defendants.
Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint, and the motion was granted. The district court held that plaintiff "fundamentally alleged" who participated in the alleged scheme to tamper with his mail, but not "how it was done or even how it amounts to tampering with his mail." For example, the district court noted that plaintiff failed to allege that his mailbox was in working order and that the re-routing of his mail was therefore part of a scheme, or that any mail was not turned over to him, or that it was delayed in reaching him. The court relied on another mail tampering case (who knew there was more than one) to hold that the allegations in the complaint did not "nudge his claim . . . across the line from conceivable to plausible" as required under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Although not immediately apparent from the complaint, the district court also held that, to the extent plaintiff was alleging discrimination — "that he has been required to pick up his mail where others have not — he failed to state a claim under this theory as well because he had not alleged that he was treated differently than others or that there was not a rational basis for that treatment.

Although plaintiff's claims in Finneman failed, it is a federal crime to interfere with the mail, and there are a number of federal statutes devoted to the various ways one could do so. For example:
  • Under 18 U.S.C.A. §1705, it is a crime, punishable by a fine, three years in prison, or both, to "willfully or maliciously injure[], tear[] down or destroy[] any letter box or other receptacle intended or used for the receipt or delivery of mail on any mail route," or open such a receptacle and "willfully or maliciously injure[], deface[] or destroy[] any mail deposited therein;
  • Under 18 U.S.C.A. §1701, it is a crime, punishable by a fine, six months in prison, or both, to "knowingly and willfully obstruct[] or retard[] the passage of the mail, or any carrier or conveyance carrying the mail.
  • 18 U.S.C.A. §1702, it is a crime, punishable by a fine, five years in prison, or both,  to "take[] any letter, postal card, or package out of any post office or any authorized depository for mail matter, or from any letter or mail carrier, or which has been in any post office or authorized depository, or in the custody of any letter or mail carrier, before it has been delivered to the person to whom it was directed, with design to obstruct the correspondence, or to pry into the business or secrets of another."
  • And, my favorite, under 18 U.S.C.A. §1706, it is a crime, punishable by a fine, three years in prison, or both, to "tear[], cut[], or otherwise injure[] any mail bag, pouch, or other thing used or designed for use in the conveyance of the mail, or draw[] or break[] any staple or loosen[] any part of any lock, chain, or strap attached thereto, with intent to rob or steal any such mail, or to render the same insecure."
Finally, in addition to a Section 1983 claim, one who believes that his mail carrier, or anyone else, is tampering with his or her mail, might also be able to bring an invasion of privacy claim, which requires proof that defendant intentionally intruded, physically or otherwise, upon the solitude or seclusion of plaintiff or plaintiff's private affairs or concerns, provided that the intrusion would be highly offensive to a reasonable person. This is not to say that plaintiff's claims in Finnemen were viable under this alternate theory, just that this might be an option for future litigants who believe that someone is tampering with their mail.
[I was not able to find any federal law that requires us to shovel out the area in front of our mailbox, but I will probably continue to do so. It seems like the right thing to do.]

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