Review of the Mail Fraud Law, Penalties, and Defenses
The United States government defines 18 U.S.C. § 1341 mail fraud as the sending or receiving of materials related to a crime of fraud – or that were going to be used to commit fraud.
Put simply, a federal mail fraud case involves somebody making false representations or promises, with an intent to defraud, by using the mail system to carry out the illegal scheme.
The mail fraud statute is closely related to the wire fraud statute under 18 U.S.C. § 1343 where somebody defrauds another person by using electronic communication, such as the internet.
The federal mail fraud statute 18 U.S.C. § 1341 applies not only to the United States Postal Service, but also private commercial carriers such as FedEx and UPS.
Additionally, it is important to remember that the use of the mail or post office need only be minor in relation to the crime.
That is, the entire crime does not have to take place in the mail system, but as long as the mail was used to further part of the scheme, the defendant can be charged with mail fraud.
Due to the significant financial impact from mail fraud, federal law enforcement agencies thoroughly investigate this type of federal crime.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) have almost limitlessness resources to investigate mail fraud.
Further, they have a greater expertise in these type of complex fraud cases than local state law enforcement agencies.
Federal prosecutors are known to aggressively prosecute sophisticated fraud related offenses, such as mail fraud.
For more detailed information, our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers are reviewing the federal statute below.
How to Prove Mail Fraud?
In order for a federal prosecutor to convict a defendant of 18 U.S.C. § 1341 mail fraud, they have to prove they made materially false representations or promises with the intent to defraud another, and used the mail to accomplish the fraud.
Put simply, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that all of the following below:
- There was a scheme to commit fraud;
- The defendant used the mail to advance their plan; and
- The defendant had a specific intent to commit fraud.
The federal statute 18 U.S.C. § 1342 adds to a mail fraud crime, using a fictitious name or address for a fraudulent scheme.
What is a “specific intent?”
Specific intent is the actual intent to commit a specific act and the wish for the result of that act to occur. It's not enough to just intend to commit a specific act; the defendant must clearly intend for the consequences the act will cause.
What is “fraud?”
Fraud, as it relates to mail fraud, occurs when a defendant knowingly and recklessly deprives another person of something valuable by misrepresenting a key fact.
Basically, the defendant lied to get the other person to give up something of value. This misrepresentation must also be able to deceive a person with common sense.
That is, if the defendant stated something so ridiculous that an ordinary person with common sense would not believe it, the prosecution would not be able to prove the charge of mail fraud.
What are the penalties for mail Fraud?
Mail fraud is a federal offense, and as such, may include up to twenty years in federal prison, a fine, and victim restitution.
Further, if the incident involves a federal financial institution, the sentence may be increased up to thirty years.
What are the Related Offenses?
Like most other crimes, mail fraud has a whole host of related crimes, including:
- Using a fake name to commit mail fraud: If when committing mail fraud, you use a fake name and are caught, the prosecution can also charge you with this crime which is punishable with up to 5 years in federal prison, a fine, or both.
- Attempt to commit mail fraud: If your attempt at mail fraud is unsuccessful, but you've already gone through with much of the plan, you may be charged with an attempt to commit mail fraud. Attempt holds the same penalties as a successful case of mail fraud.
- Wire Fraud: To prove wire fraud, the prosecution must show a plan to commit fraud and a specific intent to commit fraud. Because this crime is so similar to mail fraud, it carries the same penalties.
- Mail theft: The defendant willfully or maliciously destroyed a mailbox or other receptacle intended for mail delivery on a mail route, or they willfully and maliciously destroyed, injured, or defaced mail inside a mailbox. In California, this crime carries a penalty of a year in jail and a $1,000 court fine. If charged as a federal offense, the penalties would be more significant.
Additionally, there are specific criminal fraud crimes that just apply to California, including:
- credit card fraud,
- Identity theft;
- Med-Cal fraud;
- Senior fraud;
- Unemployment insurance fraud;
- Welfare fraud;
- Workers' compensation fraud.
What are the Best Defenses to Mail Fraud?
Successful defense of 18 U.S.C. § 1341 federal mail fraud charges could depend on enforcing your constitutional rights, due process, and a fair and speedy trial.
We understand how to protect our client's crucial legal rights and might be able to obtain a suppression of evidence and dismissal of charges in a situation where federal officials violate those rights.
Defending federal mail fraud charges requires a unique aggressive defense of the elements of fraud. Thus, some common defenses include:
- There was no fraudulent intent,
- The false misrepresentation was not material,
- The statements were not knowingly false,
- Using the mail was not related to the fraud,
- Illegal search and seizure.
However, out of all the possible defenses to mail fraud, the two most important are a lack of intent and mistake of fact.
Lack of Intent
As stated above, specific intent is a key element of mail fraud. The prosecution must prove its existence beyond a reasonable doubt to convict an individual of mail fraud.
Therefore, if the defense can prove there is a lack of intent to commit fraud, the prosecution will not be able to make the charges stick.
Mistake of Fact
Mail fraud may also be defended using the mistake of fact defense. Many mail fraud cases are related to business issues, which tend to be complicated matters.
Individuals accused of mail fraud but who were mistaken about specific facts surrounding the incident may use that as a defense.
Specific Intent Challenge
Federal mail fraud has a guilty-mental-state requirement that prosecutors must prove. Put simply, they have to show the defendant's specific intent they were going to defraud another. In other words, proving what they were thinking.
Specific intent is not always easy to prove as it has to show a defendant's state-of-mind.
Thus we could possibly challenge the prosecution's specific-intent evidence in order to raise reasonable doubt in order to avoid a conviction.
The federal prosecutor must prove the defendant knew that the information relayed through the mail was false and they intended that the fraud victim to rely on that false information.
Perhaps the inaccurate information made little to no difference to the person on the other side of the transaction.
Perhaps we can argue immaterial and innocent or careless misstatements were not sufficient to rise to a level of an 18 U.S.C. § 1341 federal mail fraud charge.
A defendant's actual knowledge, their state of mind and intent, and materiality of statements are all important issues on where to plan a strategy of defense.
If you have been accused of mail fraud, you will need a criminal defense lawyer with experience handling federal offenses.
We might be able to negotiate with the federal prosecutor for a favorable plea agreement, but are prepared to take the case to trial if necessary.
Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles County. Contact our law firm for an initial consultation at (877) 781-1570.