Right to Privacy: The United States Postal Service

Chances are that you have heard of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution and it’s interpretation to give all American citizens a Right to Privacy, but have you ever considered what privacy interests you have in your mail?  Or who protects the public from mail and packages from abuses such and the sending of drugs and other illegal items?  This web log looks into what rights you have in the privacy of your mail and how courts have decided when determining the extent of your fourth amendment rights

Although the Constitution does not explicitly include a “right to privacy,” that right has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to include restraints from government intrusion on the liberties of American citizens.  The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution and Article Six, Section Eleven of the South Dakota Constitution guarantee that “The right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”  This protection was expand to letters and parcels sent through the United States Postal Service in 1878 in a case called Ex Parte Jackson.

When a person places a letter or parcel into the custody of the U.S Mail, that package then has the guarantee of privacy just as it would if it were secure in your home.  The United States Postal Inspection Service is the law enforcement arm of the postal service.  It is the job of the Inspectors to defend the nation’s postal service against dangerous or illegal use.  Typically, the Inspectors work closely with local law enforcement to perform interdictions or watches.  If a package has “suspicious” characteristics, the Inspector will remove it from the stream of mail and examine it closer.

Courts have long wrestled with the question of what constitutes valid suspicion to justify an Inspector’s detention of mail.  Most often Inspectors are looking for drugs so some factors that are considered are express mailing services with high postage, hand-written labels with errors or scribbles, packages originating from drug source state’s such as California, heavily taped or perfumed packages to disguise smell and other anomalies that are atypical of normal mail.  If an Inspector suspects a package, he or she submits an affidavit to a federal court judge who may issue a warrant to search the package if probable cause is determined.  Usually a trained drug dog will be used to signal a possibility of drugs in the package and then the parcel may be opened to search.

If drugs or other illegal items are found, the Inspector will work with local law enforcement to perform a controlled delivery.  A detective will obtain what is called an anticipatory warrant from a county judge to search the premises, only after the package is delivered and received by the addressee.  The anticipatory warrant states what law enforcement are searching for with the idea that the illegal items in the package will be at the place and in the possession of the addressee following the delivery and that other illegal items or information could be found in their home.

Your mail has the same rights as you in your home.  The Constitution guarantees your mail from government intrusion.  If you or someone you know needs expert legal representation, call the lawyers at Wilka and Welter to make sure your rights are protected.

Posted in Wilka, Welter & Ash LLP Law Blog.