Can the Police Open Your Mail?

Where You Need a Lawyer:

(This may not be the same place you live)

At No Cost! 

 What Is Considered To Be Criminal Evidence?

Criminal evidence refers to any physical or verbal evidence that is presented for the purpose of proving a crime. Evidence can also be introduced by the defendant in order to prove that they are not guilty. It is illegal to attempt to hide any of this evidence, an action known as spoliation of evidence, from the other side and/or from the authorities. Additionally, in any criminal trial, the burden is on the prosecution to prove that the defendant committed the crime.

Criminal evidence is generally categorized as being either verbal or physical. Examples of verbal evidence include:

  • Confessions that are made by the defendant;
  • Testimony offered by witnesses and expert witnesses;
  • Text from documents such as a search warrant; and
  • Spoken evidence obtained through a wiretap.

Physical evidence refers to any tangible evidence and is generally presented as an exhibit. Examples of physical evidence include but may not be limited to:

  • Weapons or other instruments that were used to commit a crime;
  • Illegal contraband such as drugs, drug money, and drug paraphernalia;
  • DNA, blood, or other bodily samples;
  • Photographs or video footage;
  • Demonstrative evidence;
  • Footprints or other types of tracks; and
  • Scientific and forensic evidence.

All criminal evidence can be further classified as being either direct or circumstantial evidence. Direct evidence supplies the prosecution with information that is considered to be true “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Circumstantial evidence does not prove a theory, but only suggests proof in support of the theory.

What Laws Address Search And Seizure?

For the purposes of criminal investigations, searches and seizures are mostly governed by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Fourth Amendment guarantees that all U.S. citizens have the right to be protected from unreasonable searches and/or seizures conducted by law enforcement. This includes their:

  • Property;
  • Personal belongings;
  • Body; or
  • Other such areas in which they have a “reasonable expectation of privacy.”

This generally includes specific places, such as:

  • A person’s residence;
  • Other properties that they own or live at; and/or
  • Locations where they have permission to stay as an overnight guest, such as a hotel or a friend’s house. The law may also cover specific kinds of property or personal belongings that a person solely possesses, but does not own.

In addition to the Fourth Amendment, each state has its own separate constitution, as well as various state statutes and local regulations that determine how searches, seizures, and their procedures are handled within the state.

Can The Police Open Your Mail?

Under most circumstances, the police do have the right to investigate your mail. Officers have the right to search your mail if they are granted a search warrant. A search warrant is an order that is signed by a judge, and gives police officers the right to search a specific place for specific objects or materials for a criminal investigation. Search warrants generally include areas such as a person’s home or apartment.

In order to have a search warrant issued, the requesting officer must show that probable cause exists. This means there must be some basis for the belief that evidence is connected with a crime on the property or premises. In terms of searching your mail, the search warrant can only be established if there was probable cause to look through the mail, and it was granted by a judge or magistrate. However, even without a warrant, there are certain situations which still allow the police to read through your mail. These exceptions will be further discussed below.

What Is The Mail Is In My Trash Or Mailbox?

Trash that is left out on the curb, which includes mail, is not considered to be private. The U.S. Supreme Court determined that trash left out for collection is not within a reasonable expectation of privacy. What this means is that cops are allowed to go through your trash and read your mail without a search warrant to do so.

Mail that is still in the mailbox would be within the reasonable expectations of privacy that is protected by the Fourth Amendment. As such, the police cannot read through your mail; however, it is important to note that while opening the mail is illegal, reading the outside of the envelope is not.

The FBI is allowed to legally track suspect’s whereabouts by using the mail that is being sent to or from them, simply by using the information that is on the outside. Additionally, police are allowed to open packages that are deemed suspicious of illegality by FedEx or UPS. This can be done without a warrant, and police can then search the package for any illegal contraband.

Circumstances in which an officer is not required to obtain a search warrant to perform a search and seizure on a suspect are referred to as exigent circumstances. An example of an exigent circumstance in the case of searching mail would be if there was a threat within the mail system. While these are uncommon, exigent circumstances will give the police the authority to search a person’s mail without the need for a warrant.

When Are Search Warrants Considered To Be Illegal?

Simply put, a warrantless search is conducted by law enforcement before they have obtained a search warrant from a judge. Generally speaking, warrantless searches are considered to be illegal; however, there are certain circumstances in which performing a search without a warrant may be justified.

Examples include:

  • When a suspect is fleeing the police;
  • If there is a danger that incriminating evidence may be lost or destroyed;
  • When the evidence is in plain view of law enforcement;
  • If law enforcement received consent from either the person who is being searched, or the owner of the property that is being searched; or
  • When the search is associated with a valid arrest, Terry stop, or automobile search.

To further clarify, an illegal search is a search that is conducted either:

  • Without having a search warrant when a search warrant is required;
  • When it does not fall under one of the warrant exceptions; or
  • If it is done in such a way that violates a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy.

Evidence that is obtained as the result of an illegal search generally cannot be used as evidence in a court of law. This is known as the “exclusionary rule,” which is intended to protect citizens from having illegally obtained evidence used against them in a criminal trial.

Do I Need A Lawyer If The Police Open My Mail?

If you believe that your rights were violated in connection with a police search, and you suffered losses or harm due to the violation, you may sue the police for the violation. However, this is a considerably complex legal situation and generally requires the assistance of a lawyer. Because your legal rights are important, an attorney can ensure that you receive justice if your constitutional rights were violated.

Additionally, if you believe that the police have unlawfully opened or searched your mail, you should contact a criminal defense lawyer. Your attorney can help to protect your rights against unlawful searches and seizures by law enforcement, and will also be able to represent you in court as needed.

Law Library Disclaimer


16 people have successfully posted their cases

Find a Lawyer