Most people would assume that personal mail is private and therefore protected. We wouldn’t think that police officers would have the right to open and go through our private bills, letters, etc. However, in many cases, police do have the right to investigate your mail.
We are protected under the Fourth Amendment regarding unlawful searches and seizures. However, in certain cases, police are able to look through and read your mail.
Officers have the right to search your mail if granted a search warrant. The warrant can only be established if there was probable cause to look through the mail, and it was granted by a judge or magistrate. But even without a warrant, certain situations still allow the police to read through your mail.
Trash that is left out on the curb (even if it includes mail) is not considered to be private. The U.S. Supreme Court decided over 25 years ago that trash left out for collection is not within reasonable expectation of privacy. Cops are allowed to go through your trash and read your mail without a warrant.
Mail still in the mailbox is within the reasonable expectations of privacy that is protected by the Fourth Amendment. Therefore, the police cannot read through your mail. Opening the mail is illegal, but reading the outside of the envelope is not.
Also, the FBI is allowed to legally track suspect’s whereabouts by the letters being sent to or from them, by just using the information on the outside.
In addition, police are allowed to open packages that are deemed suspicious of illegality by FedEx or UPS. They can open a package without a warrant, and police can then search the package for any illegal contraband.
Circumstances in which a police officer is not required to obtain a warrant in order to perform a search and seize on a suspect are called exigent circumstances. In the case of searching mail, an exigent circumstance to the usual mandatory warrant that needs to be issued is if there was a ricin threat within the mail system. These are uncommon, but exigent circumstances will give the police the authority to search a person’s mail without the need for a warrant.
If you believe that the police have unlawfully opened or searched your mail, you should contact a criminal defense lawyer. Your lawyer will help to protect your rights against unlawful searches and seizures by law enforcement.