The state of Texas has made it a criminal offense for anyone to steal mail, parcels and other correspondence, bringing state law enforcement power to bear on crimes that in the past were either considered a federal offense or treated by the state as general theft.
The legislation, H.B. 37, was signed into law on June 10 by Gov. Greg Abbott (R). It defines “mail” as a package, letter, post card, bag or other sealed item delivered by a common carrier or delivery service and not yet received by the addressee. The law goes into effect on September 1.
The law is aimed at cracking down on professional thieves who use stolen mail as a conduit for committing identity theft or fraud. Its supporters said the law is not intended to apply to petty offenders, or to those who appropriate mail without harmful intent or as a prank. Critics of the bill said it could “over-criminalize” mail theft by imposing overly harsh penalties on certain offenders.
The law establishes separate penalties for mail theft and for those committing identity theft by stealing mail. Persons convicted of stealing from less than 10 addresses would face misdemeanor charges of up to one year in jail and/or a maximum $4,000 fine. Felony charges would apply if that same incident occurred as part of an effort to commit identity theft or fraud. From there, the penalties would escalate depending on the number of addresses that were victimized. For example, stealing mail from more than 50 addresses would be a first-degree felony punishable by a lifetime prison sentence, or a sentence of five to 99 years and a $10,000 “optional” fine.
By codifying the criminal offense of mail theft, the state will close a loophole that has enabled professional mail thieves to escape prosecution, the law’s supporters said. Because Texas state law is silent on the criminality of mail theft, local law enforcement had no choice but to forward such cases to federal officers. This provided a legal escape hatch for professional criminals due to the ambiguity of federal statutes and the high threshold required to pursue federal prosecution. Establishing a separate offense at the state level for mail theft allows local law enforcement agencies to prosecute those cases on their own.
Randy Mullett, a long-time transportation lobbyist in Washington, said Texas, like many states, considered mail theft to fall under the “general theft” classification. What’s unusual about the Texas statute is that the penalties are based on the number of instances where the theft occurred, rather than the dollar amount of the offense, Mullett said.
The rise of e-commerce and home delivery has also increased the number of incidents of “porch piracy,” in which goods are pilfered from the property because no one is home to accept them. There is no firm data, or at least no data that companies would want to divulge, to quantify the extent of porch piracy. In recent months, however, e-tailer Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN), the nation’s largest e-tailer, has launched programs to deliver parcels to customers’ vehicles and garages to avoid placing them on the property in plain sight of potential thieves.