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Mail Theft in Washington State

The subject of mail theft has been in the news lately, so I figure this might be a good time to talk about the subject. Mail theft is not a crime that you see in the court system a lot. That said, I do see it from time to time so let’s talk about state law on the subject, and then we can talk about federal mail theft law.

Washington State Law on Mail Theft

Felony Level

Under RCW 9A.56.370 it is a class C felony to steal mail addressed to three or more different addresses or to steal over 10 separate items of mail. A class C felony is punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. In Washington we have sentencing guidelines, but this offense is “unranked” meaning it hasn’t been specifically addressed by the sentencing guidelines commission. An unranked felony means that the judge can sentence anywhere between 0 and 12 months. If someone steals an envelope that contains a credit card then they are guilty of theft of an “access device” which is an automatic felony. If someone steals a credit card and tries to use it, they are also guilty of Identity Theft. So you can see how these charges can really stack up. Many charges of mail theft are related to drug addiction, but that is not always the case. In my 25-years in the criminal justice system, I have noticed that most of the defendant accused of mail theft are juveniles. It is not uncommon for homeowners to set up cameras to try to solve the crime on their own.

Misdemeanor Level

If someone steals fewer items of mail than as is described above, the theft is just handled as a general misdemeanor theft offense. Also, it is important to note that the felony mail theft law described above only applies to mail addressed to a specific person. If the mail is addresses to “box holder” then the theft thereof doesn’t rise to the level of a felony. Similarly, the offense only rises to felony level if the mail is first class mail. Magazines or advertising circulars mailed third class or bulk rate doesn’t count as a felony.

Federal Mail Theft Law

Federal law also addresses the theft of mail similar to our state statutes. 18 U.S. Code § 1708 makes it a federal felony to steal even one item of mail, and the statute doesn’t distinguish between first class mail and junk mail. The statute also prohibits keeping mail or packages that are delivered to you by accident. Once an item arrives to the correct person, an item ceases to be “mail” under federal law. In other words, if a mailed letter is stolen from a home after it has been retrieved by the addresses, then that may fall under a general theft statute, but it would not be “mail theft.”

Federal prosecutors don’t always indict a person just because a federal statute has been violated. They often use discretion and just go after the more serious offenders. Many times, when the federal authorities get involved the offense is a large scale offense occurring within the post office or larger office complex.

The federal government provides advice to avoid mail theft.