Is it legal for police to read or search through your mail?
Your mail is one thing you'd probably prefer the cops not to peek at, but in many cases they can. Still, the Fourth Amendment protects our papers and effects from unlawful search and seizure. That potentially includes some of your most intimate letters and private correspondence, depending on the circumstances.
So when is it OK for law-enforcement officers to read or sift through your mail?
With a Warrant
The Fourth Amendment is not a complete shield from law enforcement peering into our lives. They can still do so with a proper warrant. Officers can search your mail with a search warrant which is supported by probable cause and granted by a judge or magistrate.
But even without a warrant, there are a few situations in which police can still read your mail.
In Your Trash
The U.S. Supreme Court determined more than 25 years ago that trash left out on your curb for collection is not within your reasonable expectation of privacy. That means cops are free to rummage through it without a warrant.
If you're worried about sensitive mail being thrown away, you may want to consider a paper shredder -- though investigators have been known to pain-stakingly piece together shreeded documents.
In Your Mailbox
Unlike the trash you haul out to the curb, the contents of your mailbox are within the reasonable expectations of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment. However, the exterior of each letter or package is not.
In fact, the U.S. Postal Service has been silently logging and tracking mail for more than a decade, legally, but it only catalogs the outsides of envelopes. The FBI has the ability to legally track suspects using the information on the outside -- but not the contents -- of any letter sent by USPS.
Keep in mind that postal workers or private mail carriers may open suspicious packages if they suspect illegality. Police can legally search a package that FedEx or UPS sorters have opened without a warrant, especially if it contains contraband.
Under Exigent Circumstances
Law enforcement may also be allowed to search your mail if there are exigent circumstances. This is the same category of legal exceptions which allows police to follow in "hot pursuit" into a home while pursuing a suspect.
These exceptions are limited, but a ricin threat in the mail system might justify searching your mail.
If you're worried about your Fourth Amendment rights to your mail, an experienced criminal defense attorney can answer any specific concerns you may have.