You may have heard that putting a letter or package in someone else's mailbox is against the law, but is that really true?

Recently, I needed to drop off something to a neighbor so I took my son for a walk down the street. As we approached their house, I gave the envelope to my son and instructed him to go up to the house and leave it inside their screen door. He looked at me like I was crazy and pointed to the mailbox saying, "Dad, their mailbox is right here."

I explained to him that it was against the law to open up someone else's mailbox and sent him up to the door. As he walked to the house I began to question whether it really was against the law to put something in someone else's mailbox or if it was just one of those things I had always believed that had no basis in fact.

After returning home I did some research and it turns out that I was actually right.

US Mail Mailbox
Ralf Geithe
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The Mailbox Restriction Law

There actually is a federal law that makes it a crime for anyone to access a mailbox except for an official postal service employee or the owner of the mailbox. Anyone else who opens the box or puts anything inside of it is a criminal act. The U.S. Postal Service explains that "by law, a mailbox is intended only for receipt of postage-paid U.S. Mail."

Why is this law in place?

The Mailbox Restriction Law was adopted in 1934 to stop people from delivering unstamped letters, which was having a serious impact on the postal service's revenues.In 1981 a civic group took the USPS to the Supreme Court, arguing that the law was a violation of their first amendment rights. The court ruled in favor of the law, saying that the privacy of mailboxes is "an essential part of national mail delivery."

In 1997 the USPS provided a report to the House of Representatives to defend the mailbox restriction law in front of an oversight committee. In the report, officials claimed that the law was necessary to "facilitate efficient and secure delivery of mail, and promote the privacy of postal customers."

A large mailbox with the flag down along a gravel road.
Robert Clay Reed
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What can happen if you break the law?

As long as your neighbor isn't a complete jerk, putting something in their mailbox won't likely get you in trouble. However, if they did decide to lodge an official complaint or if a postal employee catches you it could cost you up to $5,000 in fines. Businesses who decide to drop off flyers or menus inside of mailboxes could face even stiffer fines of up to $10,000 per violation.

Bottom line

It's never a good idea to open up someone else's mailbox for any reason. Not only is it technically against the law, but it's also creepy. Most people take their privacy pretty seriously, and no one wants someone looking through their mail. Even if you're just dropping something off, accessing someone else's mailbox could be seen as disrespectful and an invasion of property. Your best bet is to leave the note in the newspaper slot in the mailbox if there is one or at their door.

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