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Mail Theft

Penal Code 530.5(e) PC - Mail Theft in California

Letters, parcels, and packages that travel through the United States Mail are protected by law—and rightfully so, since they contain property and materials belonging to someone else and often contain people's personal information.

California Penal Code 530.5(e) PC makes it a crime to commit mail theft. You could face up to a year in jail if convicted of this misdemeanor crime. Simply put, this statute prohibits stealing someone else's mail.

Mail Theft in California - Penal Code 530.5(e) PC
It's a misdemeanor in California under Penal Code 530.5(e) PC to commit the crime of mail theft.

The mail people receive daily in their mailbox often contains valuable information, such as names, addresses, account numbers, and other personal identification.  Unfortunately, the information in these letters can be used for identity theft or other fraud or theft-related crimes.

PC 530.5(e) says, “Every person who commits mail theft, as defined in Section 1708 of Title 18 of the United States Code, is guilty of a public offense, and upon conviction therefor shall be punished by a fine, by imprisonment in a county jail not to exceed one year, or by both a fine and imprisonment. Prosecution under this subdivision shall not limit or preclude prosecution under any other provision of law, including, but not limited to, subdivisions (a) to (c), inclusive, of this section.”

 To be found guilty of violating Penal Code 530.5(e) PC, the prosecutor must prove all the elements of the crime of mail theft.

These factors include that the defendant willfully or maliciously tore down, destroyed, or broke into any letter box or other receptacle intended to deliver mail, or they willfully defaced or destroyed any mail deposited inside. Let's review this state law in more detail below.

What Is Mail Theft?

Under Penal Code 530.5(e) PC, taking or stealing any property mailed, including letters, parcels, postcards, and packages sent through the U.S. Postal Service, is illegal. Specifically, any of the following behaviors come under the category of mail theft:

  • Stealing mail from a mailbox, receptacle, or other "authorized depository," including someone's front porch or doorstep;
  • Stealing mail from a Post Office location, mail vehicle, or mail carrier;
  • Obtaining mail that is not yours through fraud or deception from any of the above sources;
  • Opening stolen mail or removing its contents;
  • Hiding or destroying stolen mail;
  • Receiving, buying, or possessing mail you know has been stolen.

What Are Some Examples?

EXAMPLE 1: Emily notices the postman dropping off a package at her neighbor's front door across the street. Knowing her neighbor isn't home, she sneaks across the street and grabs the package. As a result, Emily can be charged with mail theft under PC 530.5(e).

EXAMPLE 2: John works for the Post Office as a mail carrier delivering packages to various homes. He notices one particular neighborhood has expensive items delivered regularly and decides to help himself to some of the contents. As a result, John can be charged with mail theft under PC 530.5(e).

EXAMPLE 3: Fred is walking down the street when he notices the local mail carrier has left her caddy unattended on the sidewalk while delivering a package. Fred quickly pilfers through the bag, looking for envelopes containing credit cards or personal tax information, finds a couple, and snags them. Fred is guilty of mail theft under California law.

What Are the Related Crimes?

Several California statutes are related to Penal Code 530.5(e) PC mail theft, often occurring in tandem, including the following:

  • Identity theft defined under Penal Code 530.5(a) PC. One of the most common reasons for stealing mail is to obtain someone's personal identifying information and use it fraudulently. Thus, identity theft and mail theft are often charged together.
  • Credit card fraud is defined under Penal Code 484e. This law makes stealing a credit or debit card or someone's information a crime.
  • Grand theft defined under Penal Code 487 PC. If the value of the mail stolen exceeds $950, you may also face charges of grand theft.
  • Petty theft is defined under Penal Code 488 PC. If the value of the mail stolen is less than $950, you may face additional petty theft charges.
  • Receiving stolen property defined under Penal Code 496 PC. It is a crime for someone to buy, receive, conceal, or sell any property that they know to be stolen.

Mail Theft Is Also a Federal Crime

It should be noted that because mail theft involves the government-run U.S. Postal Service, it is also a federal crime under Title 18, U.S. Code 1708. Therefore, California's mail theft statute refers directly to this federal law for its definition of mail theft.

While the federal government typically defers to the state's jurisdiction to prosecute mail theft and other cases where state and federal laws overlap, it's essential to understand that if the federal government chooses to take pre-eminence, such as if mail theft crosses state lines, the penalties may be much more severe, such as up to 5 years in prison versus one year in jail.

What Are the Penalties for PC 530.5(e)?

Violating PC 530.5(e) is a misdemeanor offense in California. If convicted, you could face up to one year in county jail and a fine of up to $1000.

Notably,  a judge can impose misdemeanor summary probation rather than jail time.

What Are the Defenses for PC 530.5(e)?

If you're charged with mail theft, a California criminal defense attorney may be able to employ one of several possible legal defenses, which are discussed below.

Defenses for Mail Theft in California
Contact our law firm for legal advice.

Perhaps we can argue that you took the mail by accident as it's common for mail to be delivered to the wrong place by mistake.

If you can show you took and opened someone else's mail believing it to be yours, this is a valid defense to the mail theft charge.

Perhaps we can argue that you had no intent to steal the mail. For example, maybe you opened someone else's mail because they asked you to do so—or perhaps you removed a package from a neighbor's porch for safekeeping so no one else would steal it, intending to give it to them unopened at a later time.

Perhaps we can argue that there was an Illegal search and seizure. If the police obtained evidence of mail theft through an illegal search, i.e., without a proper warrant or probable cause, they may be unable to use that evidence against you in court, and your charges can get dismissed.

If you are charged with mail theft, you can contact our law firm by phone or use the contact form. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, CA.

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