Privacy and Your Postal Packages

Q: Do postal inspectors need a warrant to open a package addressed to me?

A: Bodybuilders who order “questionable” products over the Internet often ask me about their privacy rights in packages sent to them. So, let’s talk about the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures of those things in which we have a legitimate expectation of privacy. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that letters and sealed packages in domestic mail are as fully protected as if they were kept in the sender’s own house, and can only be opened and examined pursuant to a search warrant based upon probable cause.[1]
Congress followed up by authorizing the creation of different classes of domestic mail. The type of mail intended for actual or personal correspondence – First-Class Mail (including Priority Mail) and Express Mail – is protected from warrantless searches. Suspicious mail can be temporarily detained – but not opened – if inspectors have a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.[2] If the investigation uncovers facts that raise suspicion to the higher level of probable cause, the inspectors will prepare an affidavit in support of an application for a search warrant to open the package. Once signed by a magistrate, the warrant permits the mailing to be opened and the contents examined.
What about private couriers? The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures conducted by the government and those acting in conjunction with it. Whether the privacy invasions by the employees of a private carrier are accidental or deliberate or are reasonable or unreasonable, because of their private character they do not violate the Fourth Amendment.[3] Courier companies like UPS and FedEx do not handle U.S. mail and their conduct is not restricted by the protections afforded to First-Class and Express Mail.
In 1977, the Supreme Court in U.S. v. Ramsey[4] resolved a legal conflict as to whether the Fourth Amendment forbade the opening of incoming international letter-class mail without probable cause or a search warrant. The Court’s analysis relied on the Fourth Amendment’s “border search” exception. The acceptance of border searches without a warrant or probable cause has a history rooted in English statutes dating back centuries, grounded in the right of the sovereign to protect its borders against inbound contraband and to collect duties on inbound freight. Even before the adoption of the Fourth Amendment, searches at traditional land borders were considered “reasonable” merely by the single fact that the person or item in question had entered our country from outside. In applying the border search exception to incoming mail, the Court in Ramsey held that it makes no difference that an item is mailed, not carried, across the border. Neither probable cause nor a warrant is required. But the Court noted that Congress has expressly authorized customs officials “to search any trunk or envelope” only if based upon “reasonable cause to suspect” a violation of law,[5] and that regulations allow international mail that appears to contain matter in addition to, or other than, correspondence, to be opened by customs only with reasonable cause to suspect the presence of merchandise or contraband.[6] Further, customs is generally restricted from the warrantless opening of any sealed mail which appears to contain only correspondence[7] and is prohibited from reading any correspondence without a warrant authorizing that action.[8] The Court was satisfied that these extra safeguards adequately protect Constitutional rights in personal correspondence from outside the country, and upheld the search as valid.
I’ve seen many anabolic steroid prosecutions start with the arrival of a suspicious international package. The package is opened (lawfully with no probable cause or warrant) and after the contraband (e.g., raw steroid powder) is found, an application for a warrant is prepared to search the recipient’s home. A magistrate signs the warrant, authorizing a search of the house for further evidence once the package is accepted. Undercover agents deliver the package and the recipient takes possession. The agents burst in, search, seize, and interrogate. A confession is extracted, and the prosecution begins.
So, the rules are different for domestic mail, private courier packages, and international mail. Next month, we’ll talk about refusing a package. As always, feel free to call upon my firm at 516-294-0300 if you ever find yourself in a legal jam. And please follow me on Instagram @RickCollinsEsq!

Rick Collins, JD, CSCS [] is the lawyer that members of the bodybuilding community and nutritional supplement industry turn to when they need legal help or representation. [© Rick Collins, 2020. All rights reserved. For informational purposes only, not to be construed as legal or medical advice. Previously published in Muscular Development magazine.]


[1] Ex parte Jackson, 96 U.S. 727 (1878).

[2] U.S. v. Van Leeuwen, 397 U.S. 249 (1970).

[3] U.S. v. Jacobsen, 466 U.S. 109 (1983).

[4] 431 U.S. 606 (1977).

[5] 19 U.S.C. § 482.

[6] 19 CFR § 145.3(a) (1976); authorized by 19 CFR § 145.2 (1976).

[7] 19 CFR § 145.3(b) (1976).

[8] 19 CFR § 145.3(c) (1976).

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