Make a Federal Case Out of It

When I was in law school, I would look forward to coming home from class every day to unwind in my apartment. The first thing I would do was check my mailbox to see if I got a letter from my then-girlfriend now-wife.

I would usually get a letter from her about once a week. Sometimes I would get a card from my mom or my ‘Star Wars Insider’ magazine would arrive. But every day my mailbox would be crammed with menus from local restaurants, most of them Chinese. Sometimes I would clip a great coupon and try a new place, but mostly I would just throw the menus away.

Well it turns out I was destroying evidence.

According to the United States Postal Service, only authorized USPS delivery personnel are authorized to place items in a mailbox. By law, a mailbox is only intended for the receipt of postage-paid U.S. Mail.

On their website, the USPS warns people about this law, commonly known as the mailbox restriction. The Postal Service recognizes that placing non-mail items in mailboxes is a convenient way of “dropping something off,” but these items can cause a mailbox to become full. Postal Service regulations prevent mail carriers from putting mail into boxes that are full.

Each year, the Postal Service receives numerous complaints from citizens about flyers with no postage being placed in their mailboxes, like the menus I used to get in law school. While many people don’t realize it, putting non-mail items into a mailbox is illegal under federal law. While the USPS concedes this is an easy and effective way to advertise, as evidenced by me using a coupon to try a gyro, only U.S. Mail delivered by authorized personnel may be placed in mailboxes. The restriction also includes anything placed upon, supported by, attached to, hung from, or inserted into a mail receptacle.

In a statement on the USPS website, Postmaster Keith Jackson said, “We know many customers might not object to having a particular item placed in their mailbox from time to time, but the reasons for restricting use of mailboxes is really two-fold.” He elaborated, saying, “First, if there is not enough room in a mailbox due to unauthorized items, the Postal Service can’t deliver the customer’s mail. Secondly, the Postal Service wants to ensure the integrity of our customer’s mailbox. That’s why only Postal Service personnel are authorized to place mail in or remove mail from mailboxes.”

Jackson went on to say, “U.S. Postal Inspectors advise customers to report people going mailbox to mailbox who are not postal employees. It could be someone completely unaware of the statute placing advertisements, but it could also be someone trying to steal mail.”

There are a couple of exceptions to the rule, however. A newspaper can be placed in a mailbox, but only on Sunday, as this is a non-delivery day for the Postal Service. In addition, a newspaper receptacle can be mounted on a rural or curbside mailbox post or support. Finally, non-mail items may also be placed in mail slots in residential doors because they provide direct access to the home.

According to the Government Accountability Office, if you stuff a non-mail item into someone’s mailbox, you could face a fine of up to $5,000 per occurrence. Organizations, like restaurants, could face a fine of up to $10,000 per occurrence.

So if you’re thinking of leaving something in someone’s mailbox, like a Girl Scout Cookie order or a block party invitation, just remember that a $5,000 fine would have bought you 9,090 55₵ stamps.

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Reg P. Wydeven

Elder Law and Estate Planning Attorney at McCarty Law LLP
Hoping to follow in his father’s footsteps from a young age, Reg’s practice primarily consists of advising individuals on estate planning, estate settlement and elder law matters. As Reg represents clients in matters like guardianship proceedings and long-term care admissions, he feels grateful to be able to offer families thorough legal help in their time of need.

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