Information on the crime of mail theft is found at California penal code section 530.5(e) and U.S. Code 18, section 1708. The focus of this article relates to the law, penalties, and common defenses related to California PC 530.5(e) with relevant references to U.S.C. 18, 1708 where applicable. For more information on federal mail theft charges, contact our criminal defense attorneys for a free consultation.
Note: Mail theft and mail fraud are not the same crime. Mail theft is the act of taking or destroying another person’s mail without permission and with the intent to permanently deprive the true owner of that mail. Mail fraud occurs where the mail is used to defraud another person, even if the mail itself is not stolen (i.e., using US mail to defraud customers or client, voter fraud by mail, etc.).
CA Mail Theft Law PC 530.5(E)
Mail Theft Definition
Per U.S.C. 18, §1708, mail theft is defined as: ‘Whoever takes, or attempts to take, by fraud, theft, embezzlement, or deception, any mail, postcard, package, or letter, from a post office, mailbox, letter carrier, mail vehicle, mail bag, or any other authorized depository for mail, or from a letter or mail carrier, any letter, postal card, package, bag, or other mail, is guilty of mail theft’ (USC 18, §1708 Abbrev.).
Note: Mail theft also occurs when a person takes possession of mail that he knows is stolen.
Examples of Mail Theft: 1) take mail out of a mailbox with the intent to permanently deprive the intended mail, 2) throw mail in the trash without authorization of the intended recipient(s), 3) change another person’s mailing address without consent, and with intent to deprive the intended mail recipient(s), 4) hide or destroy mail with the intent to permanently deprive the intended mail recipient, 5) take mail package(s) from door area without consent and with intent to permanently deprive the intended recipient.
Note: Mail theft can occur even if the mail was delivered to the wrong person or address when the unintended mail recipient acts to permanently deprive the true owner of his or her mail.
For example, if a mail package is left at the wrong door front, and the recipient knows that the package was not intended for him, then the recipient commits mail theft when he keeps the package for himself.
Attempted Mail Theft: PC 530.5(e) covers the scenario where the mail thief attempts to commit mail theft, but his or her attempt is unsuccessful.
For example, a person who puts glue to tape inside a mail drop box to ‘catch’ the mail before it falls to the bottom of the mailbox, so that he may later retrieve the mail with ease and without consent, is guilty of PC 530.5(e). This is true even if the thief never ‘catches’ any mail.
PC 530.5(e) Law
Per PC 530.5(e), every person who commits mail theft (as defined above) is guilty of… a misdemeanor. Prosecution under PC 530.5(e) does not limit or preclude prosecution under any other provision of law, including, identity theft, receipt of stolen property, mail fraud, embezzlement, extortion, federal mail theft, etc. (PC 530.5(e) Sum. & Abbrev.).
According to California mail theft law, it is possible to be found guilty for both the mail theft and any other crime that is committed in connection with mail theft.
For example, if David takes Goliath’s mail parcel without Goliath’s consent, and David keeps the contents of the mail parcel, then David may be charged with both mail theft (PC 530.5(e)), and receipt of stolen property (PC 496(D)).
Note: Every piece of mail that is stolen is a separate offense under PC 530.5(e).
For example, if David steals four letters from a mail carrier’s mail bag, then David may be charged with four counts of PC 530.5(e).
PC 530.5(e) Penalties
Jail Sentence: California mail theft is a misdemeanor offense. If found guilty of PC 530.5(e), the defendant may face up to a year in jail and up to a $1,000 fine per incident.
Note: Federal mail theft charges mail be classified as felony offense under USC 18, 1708. For more information, see Misdemeanor or Felony, What's the Difference?
Probation Sentence: A probation sentence is a period of supervision after a criminal conviction, as opposed to a jail sentence. A probation sentence is allowed after a conviction for mail theft, but a probation sentence is never guaranteed.
Whether a probation sentence is granted after a penal code 530.5(e) conviction depends on many factors, including the defendant's criminal history, the loss to any victims, the level of sophistication used in the theft, the terms of any plea bargain between the district attorney and the defense attorney, and more.
Whether a probation sentence is granted after a conviction for mail theft depends on the facts and circumstances of the alleged offense, including the facts surrounding the sophistication level involved in the mail theft, the defendant’s criminal history, the amount of loss to any victim, the level or remorse shown by the defendant, and more.
Misdemeanor Probation: A probation sentence after a mail theft conviction is classified as “informal” probation, which means the defendant’s probation is monitored by the court, as opposed to a probation officer.
Misdemeanor probation terms usually include ‘stay out of trouble’ terms, pay fines and fees, possible work release (manual labor), and criminal protective orders to stay away from certain people of places (i.e., stay away from victims or post office).
Note: The fine for PC 530.5(e) conviction is up to one thousand dollars ($1,000) per conviction, but this amount may generally be lowered in many cases for various reasons.
Restitution: Restitution is an amount of money owed to victims of crimes, which equals the amount of monetary loss to those victims. Restitution will be ordered in mail theft crimes where the defendant caused loss to the victim(s) of mail theft (i.e., price of mailed goods that were stolen by the defendant). Restitution may cover loss to victim of mail fraud as well (i.e., economic loss to victim after defendant’s fraud that is carried out via mail). For more information, see Restitution Defense in Criminal Cases.
Immigration Consequences: Mail theft is a crime involving moral turpitude. A crime involving moral turpitude is a crime that involves deceit, theft, fraud, or is otherwise considered morally wrong. Crimes that involve moral turpitude can have severe negative impact on immigration proceedings for non-US citizens. A conviction for PC 530.5(e), mail theft, can lead to involuntary deportation from the United States for non-US citizens. For more information, see Crimes Involving Moral Turpitude.
Note: Crimes involving moral turpitude will usually carry severe adverse consequences for professional licensure (i.e., licensing for lawyers, doctors, teachers, nurses, etc.), and for military service (denial of entry, discharge, etc.).
Civil Lawsuits: A conviction for mail theft may lead to civil lawsuit(s) against the defendant. These lawsuits can cover damages for non-economic loss, such as pain and suffering, punitive damage, and more. This means that civil lawsuits for PC 530.5(e) can result in monetary damages to the defendant that is above and beyond the amount ordered as restitution in the criminal court.
Note: Civil lawsuits for mail fraud are less likely to occur when the defendant pleads “no contest” to a PC 530.5(e) allegation, as opposed to a plea of “guilty.” For more information on the difference between a “no contest” plea and “guilty” plea, see What Does ‘No Contest’ Mean?
Mail Theft Defenses
A defense to mail theft is crafted to meet the facts of the allegation; therefore, there is not one defense that necessarily works best in any PC 530.5(e) case. With this in mind, common defenses in mail theft cases tend to involve the lack of intent to permanently deprive the intended mail recipient of his or her mail.
For example, a mail parcel (package) that is left at the wrong address is not stolen until the defendant intends to deprive the true owner of the mail forever. If the person who received the wrongfully address mail just holds onto it until he or she gets around to returning the package, or delivering it to the intended recipient, then this is not mail theft.
Consent: Consent is a defense to PC 530.5(e) crimes. In other words, if the intended mail recipient gives consent to another person to open mail, or to take possession of mail, then PC 530.5(e) is not committed. Implied consent is a defense as well.
For example, David opens his son’s mail because David handles his son’s bills. David’s son knows this fact and doesn’t complain. This is also common in husband wife situations where one spouse usually opens the other spouses mail, even if every time the mail is opened the consenting spouse does not give specific consent to the other spouse to open the mail.
Mistake of Fact: Mistake of fact defense occurs when the defendant wrongfully, but truly, believed a set of circumstances existed, and if the defendant were not wrong about those circumstances, then a crime would not have been committed.
For example, a person who accidentally opens another person’s mail, or a person who truly believes that he has consent of the mail recipient to open that mail, is does not commit mail theft.
Statute of Limitations Defense: The statute of limitations is a time limit under which the district must file a criminal complaint or lose the opportunity to file that criminal complaint. In PC 530.5(e) cases, the statute of limitation is one year from the date of alleged criminal offense. However, it is possible that a crime related to mail theft could have a longer statute of limitations.
For example, David commits identity theft after stealing Goliath’s mail and using Goliath’s personal information. In this case, the mail theft statute of limitations is only one year, but the identity theft statute of limitations is three years.
Other PC 530.5(e) Defenses: Additional mail theft crimes defenses include coerced confession (defendant’s coerced self-incriminating statements), illegal search and seizure, improper reading of rights (Miranda Violations), insufficient evidence to prove the crime, and more.
Note: Double jeopardy, or the law that that forbids prosecution for the same crime more than once, is not a defense in mail theft cases where the state and the federal government bring separate prosecutions for mail theft regarding the same incident. This is because the state and the federal government are different ‘sovereigns’ within the meaning of double jeopardy law.
For example, David steals Goliath’s mail to commit identity theft. When David is caught, he may be charged with California penal code 530.5(e) and USC 18, 1708, because the state of California and the federal government are two completely different governments bringing criminal charges against David. For more information, see What is Double Jeopardy?
Important: Never talk to law enforcement, or anyone from the United States Postal Inspector’s Office about any alleged mail theft allegations before you first talk to a criminal defense lawyer. Remember, the United States Postal Inspector (USPI) is the agency that typically investigates mail theft, and USPI is a law enforcement.
Diversion: In some cases, the defendant may have his criminal charges ‘diverted,’ which means to circumvent the process of criminal proceedings. Diversion is similar to probation in some ways, except that when the defendant finishes a diversion sentence the defendant’s criminal charges are dismissed. Different types of diversion are allowed in PC 530.5(e) cases, including mental diversion, military diversion, and judicial diversion (most common).
Note: Diversion is not a guarantee in any case. A criminal defendant must request diversion. If diversion is granted, the defendant may be monitored by a diversion-related agency that works closely with the courts. For more information, see Judicial Diversion.
After a mail theft conviction, a criminal defendant may have several post-conviction options, including withdraw of guilty plea (PC 1018), appeal the misdemeanor conviction, expunge the criminal conviction (PC 1203.4), terminate probation early (PC 1203.3), remove a criminal protective order, and more.
If you or a loved one has been charged with mail theft, or California penal code section 530.5(e), contact our award-winning criminal defense attorney today for a free consultation. Our team of successful and winning criminal defense attorneys have handled hundreds of misdemeanor and felony crimes in the Inland Empire.
Our team is ready to defend you in all Inland Empire courts and cities, including Redlands, Colton, Grand Terrace, Riverside, Chino, Riverside, Upland, Rancho Cucamonga, Victorville, San Bernardino, Yucaipa, Banning, and more. Call today!
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