Society functions on enforced rules and regulations to prevent somebody from impeding your rights (or somebody else's rights!). These laws protect us from harm and encompass many everyday activities. Among the rules to protect us are specific privacy laws about personal correspondence.
For citizens of the United States of America, federal regulations protect the privacy of mailed correspondence. These provisions were enacted to ensure others could not access citizens' private information, especially since several government documents are exclusively provided via traditional postage. These regulations have long been lauded as a tool for protecting the privacy of American citizens, but some questions remain.
Most privacy protection laws are drafted with the idea that a single citizen can uphold their rights. The concept comes into question when an individual shares their life with a spouse, and both of their correspondence arrives at the same address. If you are currently married, you might wonder if you and your spouse can legally open each other's private correspondence. It is a reasonable question considering marriage involves sharing assets and property.
One misstep could lead to severe consequences, so knowing the legal basis for such things is important. Therefore, we feel it is important to provide some information surrounding the legality of opening your spouse's mail with or without their consent.
When it comes to the law, it is not always as uniform as we think. Laws can be divided into one of two different categories—federal and state laws. State laws vary depending on your state, so the laws in New York might be very different from those in Texas. However, some laws are universal and regulated by the federal government. These federal laws remain identical across state borders and are seldom open to interpretation by state officials. Among these federal regulations is the law about opening another person's mail.
The law about opening another citizen's mail is 18 U.S. Code § 1708, which states:
"Whoever steals, takes, or abstracts, or by fraud or deception obtains, or attempts so to obtain, from or out of any mail, post office, or station thereof, letter box, mail receptacle, or any mail route or other authorized depository for mail matter, or from a letter or mail carrier, any letter, postal card, package, bag, or mail, or abstracts or removes from any such letter, package, bag, or mail, any article or thing contained therein, or secretes, embezzles, or destroys any such letter, postal card, package, bag, or mail, or any article or thing contained therein; or
Whoever steals, takes, or abstracts, or by fraud or deception obtains any letter, postal card, package, bag, or mail, or any article or thing contained therein which has been left for collection upon or adjacent to a collection box or other authorized depository of mail matter; or
Whoever buys, receives, or conceals, or unlawfully has in his possession, any letter, postal card, package, bag, or mail, or any article or thing contained therein, which has been so stolen, taken, embezzled, or abstracted, as herein described, knowing the same to have been stolen, taken, embezzled, or abstracted—
Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both."
This section of the U.S. Code protects the mail of American citizens from unauthorized access, though some choose to risk jail time for short-term profit.
While these regulations are non-negotiable for strangers, one must wonder whether provisions exist for your spouse. Especially since important correspondence for at least one of you might arrive without the other's presence. This common scenario can end up more complicated than people realize.
The simplest answer to whether you can open your spouse's mail is "no." As the subject of this article might imply, this answer is only applicable to opening your spouse's mail without permission. You can never open or read correspondence addressed to someone other than yourself without express permission from the other party.
Technically speaking, receiving consent from your spouse does legalize the act, and you are not violating federal law if you do so under their instruction.
Another exception to this rule is if the mail is either addressed to both of you or is marked "To Resident." In these scenarios, you technically qualify as one of the intended recipients of the mail. These regulations allow your spouse to maintain their privacy despite sharing a household and assets with you. While you might be given consent to open your spouse's mail at the moment, you might be better off refusing to open their mail on their behalf. Your best course of action is to allow your spouse to retain full control over their mail while maintaining full control over yours. This can be beneficial if your marriage experiences hard times down the line.
To reiterate the above, you must be sure to receive explicit consent from your spouse to open their mail. Any situation where your spouse does not give this consent could lead you to violate federal law. This means you should never assume their consent is "blanket consent," which is always applicable. There might be correspondence your spouse wants to keep private and does not want you reading. You could face fines or jail time if you read this correspondence against their will.
In addition to the federal consequences of mail tampering, it can complicate civil matters. These civil complications apply only if you and your spouse are going through a divorce, but they can be detrimental to your post-marital life.
Perhaps one of the most tragic parts of marriage, divorce is a growing issue in modern relationships. Divorce proceedings inherently risk being a case of you and your spouse pointing fingers and accusing each other. There are a lot of "he said, she said" arguments made in divorce proceedings designed to help protect the accuser's interests. This is not to say that petty arguments drive all divorces, but that some spouses might try underhanded techniques to get the edge over their spouse.
While this might not be the case in every divorce, and you might not even be on track for divorce, it is still important to consider.
The issue that arises is that it is impossible to prove that you had their consent to open their mail unless you asked for it on paper. Asking for written proof of this consent is not common because there is meant to be trust between you and your spouse. Only an extremely dishonest person would falsely accuse you, but it is a consideration you must keep in mind.
Again, we realize divorce might not be in the cards for your relationship and that you sought this information to avoid violating the law. We only want to ensure that you are fully informed of all the potential consequences of mail tampering. If it comes to light that you read your spouse's mail against their will, you could face federal charges during the divorce proceedings. Furthermore, if a citizen wants to file a claim against a spouse who has read their mail without their consent, they can sue for damages and receive a considerable financial settlement. These types of civil suits can cause more trouble in your divorce than you would normally encounter.
Avoiding reading your spouse's mail is crucial if you are in the middle of divorce proceedings or are already divorced. Unfortunately, the situation is a little more complicated than only avoiding their posted mail. What many people do not realize is that there are similar protections in place for electronic correspondence.
The modern era has revolutionized the forms of communication we employ to convey information to each other. Once upon a time, written correspondence was the only medium we could use to send messages over long distances. Nowadays, we have access to electronic mail and text messages to effortlessly send messages across the country in mere moments.
This digital correspondence has made life much simpler in many ways and complicated certain legal protections. While the U.S. Code has established laws to protect the privacy of written correspondence, it brings the question of whether electronic correspondence is under the same protection.
Once again, the U.S. Code has established federal laws that protect the privacy of your spouse's electronic correspondence. While Chapter 83 of the U.S. Code was responsible for written correspondence, Chapter 119 was drafted to offer the same protections for e-mail and text messages. Specifically, 18 U.S. Code § 2511 prohibits the interception and disclosure of electronic communications.
Per this code:
"(1) Except as otherwise specifically provided in this chapter, any person who—
(a) intentionally intercepts, endeavors to intercept, or procures any other person to intercept or endeavor to intercept any wire, oral, or electronic communication;
(b) intentionally uses, endeavors to use, or procures any other person to use or endeavor to use any electronic, mechanical, or other device to intercept any oral communication when—
(i) such device is affixed to, or otherwise transmits a signal through, a wire, cable, or other like connection used in wire communication; or
(ii) such device transmits communications by radio or interferes with the transmission of such communication; or
(iii) such person knows, or has reason to know, that such device or any component thereof has been sent through the mail or transported in interstate or foreign commerce; or
(iv) such use or endeavor to use (A) takes place on the premises of any business or other commercial establishment, the operations of which affect interstate or foreign commerce, or (B) obtains or is for the purpose of obtaining information relating to the operations of any business or other commercial establishment the operations of which affect interstate or foreign commerce; or
(v) such person acts in the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, or any territory or possession of the United States;
(c) intentionally discloses, or endeavors to disclose, to any other person the contents of any wire, oral, or electronic communication, knowing or having reason to know that the information was obtained through the interception of a wire, oral, or electronic communication in violation of this subsection;
(d) intentionally uses, or endeavors to use, the contents of any wire, oral, or electronic communication, knowing or having reason to know that the information was obtained through the interception of a wire, oral, or electronic communication in violation of this subsection; or
(e)(i) intentionally discloses, or endeavors to disclose, to any other person the contents of any wire, oral, or electronic communication, intercepted by means authorized by sections 2511(2)(a)(ii), 2511(2)(b)–(c), 2511(2)(e), 2516, and 2518 of this chapter, (ii) knowing or having reason to know that the information was obtained through the interception of such a communication in connection with a criminal investigation, (iii) having obtained or received the information in connection with a criminal investigation, and (iv) with intent to improperly obstruct, impede, or interfere with a duly authorized criminal investigation, shall be punished as provided in subsection (4) or shall be subject to suit as provided in subsection (5)."
This code makes it illegal to go through your spouse's electronic correspondence without their consent. With this information, you should be fully equipped to avoid committing a fatal error and a federal offense. However, there is always more to learn about the law.
Although a federal offense, opening someone's mail, even a spouse's, without their consent generates civil complications. With this information, you should be able to keep abreast of the potential consequences of opening your spouse's mail without their consent. That said, there is always more to learn about civil law, and there is no shortage of information on certain civil legal matters.