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Is It Illegal to Shred Previous Tenants' Mail?

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

Last updated 11/5/2019

Have you been receiving mail from a previous tenant and don't know what to do with it? This article addresses what your obligations are in such situations.

Is It Illegal to Open or Shred a Previous Tenant's Mail?

Yes. It is a federal crime to open or destroy mail that is not intended for you. The law provides that you can not "destroy, hide, open, or embezzle" mail that is not addressed to you.

If you intentionally open or destroy someone else's mail, you are committing obstruction of correspondence, which is a felony. If you are found guilty of obstruction of correspondence, you could potentially face five years in prison and/or fines.

What Should I Do If I Receive the Previous Tenant's Mail?

It is common to receive previous tenants' mail, especially if previous tenants did not change their mailing address with the U.S. Postal Service. If this happens, you should write something like "return to sender," "wrong address," or "person does not reside here anymore" and put it back in the mailbox. The mail carrier will take care of it from there.

What If I Accidentally Opened the Mail?

It is reasonable for you to assume the mail in your mailbox belongs to you. You will likely not be liable for accidentally opening the mail because intent is required to establish mail theft.

If you do accidentally open mail that doesn't belong to you, the best option is to re-seal the mail and write "return it to sender" and put it back in the mailbox. This is because it is illegal to obstruct mail from reaching its intended recipient.

What If I Have Permission to Open the Mail?

It is usually okay to open someone else's mail if you have permission from the intended recipient. This is because the federal law only addresses situations concerning "unlawful receipt" of mail. If the addressee gave you permission, then you have the right to open the mail.

Additional Resources

Talk to an Attorney If You Are Charged With Obstruction of Correspondence

Opening and destroying mail intended for someone else is a felony crime. If you are charged with taking someone else's mail and are facing prosecution, you should speak to a criminal defense attorney right away to learn about your options.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified criminal lawyer to make sure your rights are protected.

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