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Mail Cover Surveillance - Problems & Recommendations, NACDL, 2015

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MAIL COVER SURVEILLANCE:
PROBLEMS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
A Report by NACDL’s
Fourth Amendment Advocacy Committee
Reporter: Steven R. Morrison
April 19, 2015

Mail Cover Surveillance: Problems and Recommendations
Steven R. Morrison
Reporter, NACDL
Vice-Chair, Fourth Amendment Advocacy Committee
April 19, 2015
Introduction
Mail cover surveillance (“mail covers”), which is the investigative practice of
recording the information listed on the outside of mail going to or from a designated
address, has existed since the nineteenth century. 1 While often a legitimate tool of
criminal investigations, mail covers have been abused. They were used in the 1950s
against suspected communists and expanded to include surveillance of the contents of
letters.2 Indeed, CIA and FBI agents used mail covers to intercept hundreds of thousands
of letters in the 1950s and 1960s, sometimes smuggling them out of post offices to open
and read them to avoid postal worker intervention.3
It was only after a fifteen year-old girl was targeted in the 1970s for sending a
letter to the Socialist Workers Party as a class assignment that the abuses came to light. 4
As a result of these abuses, mail cover regulations were promulgated in 1975, and now
appear at 39 C.F.R. § 233.3.5 Based on concerns about the vagueness and overbreadth of

1

David S. Kris & J. Douglas Wilson, In General, NATIONAL SECURITY INVESTIGATIONS AND
PROSECUTIONS § 21:1.
2
Id.
3
Id.
4
Paton v. La Prade, 469 F.Supp. 773 (D.N.J. 1978); Mail Snooping Needs More Accountability, DES
MOINES REGISTER, Oct. 30, 2014.
5
Kris & Wilson, supra note 1.

authorizing mail covers for “national security,” the regulations were amended in 1979 to
include a more precise definition of that term.6
Despite these reforms, concerns about mail covers have persisted. In 1986, the
South Florida Sun-Sentinel expressed concern that mail covers doubled from 1978
through 1985, from 4,379 to 8,597.7 The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks prompted
the Bush Administration to seek expanded mail cover authority, a move that concerned
both the Postal Service and privacy and civil rights advocates. 8 In the eleven years since
2001, local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies made more than 100,000
requests for mail covers.9 One of these requests came from Maricopa County Sheriff Joe
Arpaio to monitor the mail of Mary Rose Wilcox, a frequent critic of Arpaio and a
Maricopa County supervisor. 10 Wilcox sued the county and won a $1 million
settlement.11 In the early 2000s, federal prosecutors used a mail cover to monitor the
communications between a criminal defendant and his lawyers. 12 In 2013, a former
member of the Earth Liberation Front and a current bookstore owner learned his mail was
being tracked.13 In response, a former Justice Department official said the current regime
does not track criminal suspects, but the approach seems to be, “Let's record everyone's
mail so in the future we might go back and see who you were communicating with.” 14

6

Id.
Government Surveillance of Suspect Mail is Doubled, SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL, Mar. 2, 1986.
8
Eric Lichtblau, Bush Plan Would Let FBI Track Mail, DESERET MORNING NEWS, May 21, 2005.
9
Ron Nixon, Report Reveals Wider Tracking of Mail in U.S., NEW YORK TIMES, Oct. 27, 2014.
10
Id.
11
Id.
12
Id.
13
Ron Nixon, U.S. Postal Service Logging All Mail for Law Enforcement, NEW YORK TIMES, July 3, 2013.
14
Id.
7

2

Most recently, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. Postal Service almost never
denies applications for mail covers.15
A 2014 U.S. Postal Service audit of the mail cover program revealed the breadth
of the mail cover program as well as its systemic failures in authorization and
monitoring.16 In 2013 alone, the Postal Service processed about 49,000 mail covers. 17
The report detailed the following violations of the governing regulation:


21 percent of requests were approved without written authority;



13 percent of requests were not adequately justified or reasonable grounds for
them were not transcribed accurately;



27 percent of requests were not entered into the application in a timely
fashion;



61 percent of accountable documents were not returned on time;



32 percent of case files did not include the dates that Postal Inspectors visited
facilities where mail covers were processed;



10 percent of case files did not have the dates of the mail period coverage or
mail counts;



15 percent of inspectors did not have the required nondisclosure form on file;



32 percent of case files were not returned to the Postal Inspection Service
Office of Counsel in a timely fashion after the mail cover period ended;



Mail cover requests were not always processed in a timely fashion;

15

Josh Hicks, Postal Service Almost Never Denies Mail-Surveillance Requests, WASHINGTON POST, Dec.
30, 2014.
16
Office of the Inspector General, United States Postal Service, Postal Inspection Service Mail Covers
Program, May 28, 2014.
17
Id. at 1.

3



Officials did not periodically review the criminal programs as required.18

The audit reported that inadequate controls generated these failures.19 Officials at
seven postal facilities cited their focus on mail processing and employee turnover as
primary reasons for inadequate controls.20 The audit finally recommended improved
controls for mail cover processing, timeliness, and data integrity, and establishing
procedures for periodic reviews of mail covers. 21
It remains unknown whether these or other recommendations will be taken up. In
the meantime, constitutional and privacy concerns persist. This report addresses these
concerns. To do so, it is organized as follows. In Part I, the report describes mail covers
and 39 C.F.R. § 233.3, which is the sole authority governing mail covers. In Part II, the
report sets forth the relevant law. This law primarily is that of the Fourth Amendment,
especially involving the potential impact of United States v. Jones,22 the 2012 GPS
tracking case. It also includes, to a lesser degree, First Amendment law on association,
receipt of information, and anonymity. Part III discusses three potential constitutional
and privacy issues generated by mail cover surveillance. These issues are (1) whether
mail covers ever entail a Fourth Amendment violation; (2) whether § 233.3, if it is
followed, is adequate to protect Fourth Amendment rights; and (3) whether § 233.3 is
adequate to protect sub-Fourth Amendment privacy concerns (this issue assumes that
there are such sub-constitutional privacy issues, and this portion of the report discusses
them). Finally, Part IV proposes a set of recommendations that should protect

18

Id. at 2-6.
Id. at 3-4.
20
Id. at 4.
21
Id. at 6-7.
22
132 S.Ct. 945 (2012).
19

4

individuals’ privacy, improve systemic mail cover controls, and ensure that legitimate
law enforcement efforts are not hindered.
I. Mail covers and 39 C.F.R. § 233.3
39 C.F.R. § 233.3 provides “the sole authority and procedure for initiating a mail
cover, and for processing, using and disclosing information obtained from mail covers.” 23
Section 233.3 defines a mail cover as
the process by which a nonconsensual record is made of any data
appearing on the outside cover of any sealed or unsealed class of mail
matter, or by which a record is made of the contents of any unsealed class
of mail matter as allowed by law, to obtain information in order to: (i)
Protect national security, (ii) Locate a fugitive, (iii) Obtain evidence of
commission or attempted commission of a crime, (iv) Obtain evidence of a
violation or attempted violation of a postal statute, or (v) Assist in the
identification of property, proceeds or assets forfeitable under law. 24
The USPS is supposed to maintain “rigid control and supervision” over mail
covers.25 The Chief Postal Inspector is the principal officer supervising mail covers. He
may delegate any or all authority to a limited number of designees,26 who may authorize
mail covers in response to a written request, stating a reason to believe the mail cover
will produce evidence of a violation of a postal statute or reasonable grounds to
demonstrate the mail cover is necessary to protect national security, locate a fugitive,
obtain information regarding a crime, or assist in the identification of forfeitable assets. 27
When time is of the essence, an oral request for a mail cover may be acted upon.28

23

39 C.F.R. § 233.3(b).
§ 233.3(c)(1).
25
§ 233.3(a).
26
§ 233.3(d).
27
§ 233.3(e).
28
§ 233.3(e)(3).
24

5

With some exceptions, not vital to this report, postal officials may not record mail
cover information in the absence of a mail cover order.29 In addition, they may not open,
inspect the contents of, or permit such inspection of sealed mail without a federal search
warrant.30 Mail cover orders are not to include correspondence between a target and her
known attorney.31
Except to locate a fugitive or for national security investigations, mail cover
orders remain in effect for only thirty days. They may be extended with adequate
justification, and new thirty-day periods may be authorized.32 Mail cover orders may last
longer than 120 days only with the personal approval of the Chief Postal Inspector or his
designees at National Headquarters.33 Except to locate fugitives, mail cover orders are
ineffective once a target has been indicted or an information has issued. If a target is
being investigated for further crimes or to locate her assets for forfeiture, a new mail
cover order may issue.34 National security mail cover requests must be approved
personally by the head of the law enforcement agency requesting the cover or a designee
at the agency’s headquarters level. This request must be transmitted, in writing, to the
Chief Postal Inspector.35
The Chief Postal Inspector is to have custody of all mail cover requests, records
of actions ordered thereon, and all reports generated pursuant thereto.36 If the Chief
Postal Inspector or his designee determines that a mail cover was improperly ordered, all
29

§ 233.3(f)(1) (These exceptions include undelivered mail found abandoned or in the possession of a
person reasonably believed to have stolen or embezzled such mail; damaged or rifled, undelivered mail; or
mail posing an immediate threat to persons or property.).
30
§ 233.3(g)(1).
31
§ 233.3(g)(3).
32
§ 233.3(g)(5).
33
§ 233.3(g)(6).
34
§ 233.3(g)(7).
35
§ 233.3(g)(8).
36
§ 233.3(h)(1).

6

data acquired as a result of the order is to be destroyed and the requesting authority
notified of the discontinuance of the mail cover.37 Data generated from a mail cover is to
be available to a target through appropriate discovery procedures, 38 and the data is to be
retained for eight years. 39
The Chief Postal Inspector or his designee at Inspection Service Headquarters is
to periodically review mail cover orders issued to ensure compliance with § 233.3.40 A
separate periodic review of national security mail cover orders is mandated.41 The Chief
Postal Inspector’s determination in all matters involving mail covers is final and
conclusive, and is not subject to further administrative review.42
Section 233.3 does not apply to the military postal system. 43
II. Relevant law: Fourth and First Amendments
Mail covers are potentially limited by the Fourth Amendment as well as First
Amendment rights to associate, to receive information, and to anonymity.
a. Fourth Amendment: Ex Parte Jackson
In 1877, the United States Supreme Court in Ex Parte Jackson held that the
Fourth Amendment protects the contents of letters and sealed packages subject to letter
postage from inspection in the absence of a warrant or other justification.44 The Court
also ruled, however, that the Fourth Amendment did not protect letters’ and packages’
“outward form and weight.”45 As to “printed matter” (advertisements, bulk mail, and

37

§ 233.3(h)(2).
§ 233.3(h)(3).
39
§ 233.3(h)(4).
40
§ 233.3(j)(1).
41
§ 233.3(j)(2).
42
§ 233.3(j)(3).
43
§ 233.3(k).
44
Ex Parte Jackson, 96 U.S. 727, 733 (1877).
45
Id.
38

7

other mail open to examination), the Court held that contents may be inspected but
transportation of such matter could not be regulated “so as to interfere in any manner
with the freedom of the press.”46
Jackson, therefore, stood for three propositions. First, the Fourth Amendment
protects the contents of letters and packages that senders generally consider private.
Second, the Fourth Amendment does not protect information on mail covers. Third, mail
has both Fourth Amendment and First Amendment implications.
b. Fourth Amendment: Katz v. United States
The U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Katz v. United States set forth the familiar
two-part privacy test for implicating the Fourth Amendment.47 Under the Katz test, an
individual is protected by the Fourth Amendment in areas where she has an actual
(subjective) expectation of privacy, and when that expectation is one that society is
prepared to accept as reasonable.48 Katz, moreover, generally reaffirmed Ex Parte
Jackson.49
As Katz tracked the holding in Jackson, which protected the contents of mail but
not the information on mail covers, courts have uniformly held that mail covers usually
do not violate the Fourth Amendment.50 At least one court, however, has left open the
possibility that mail covers that extend beyond their proper scope may generate Fourth
Amendment violations.51 To date, however, violations of § 233.3 have not resulted in
suppression of evidence. The justification for the lack of suppression is that although

46

Id.
389 U.S. 347 (1967).
48
Id. at 361 (Harlan, J., concurring).
49
Id. at 351-52.
50
Daniel E. Feld, Validity, Under Fourth Amendment, of “Mail Cover”, 57 A.L.R. FED. 742 (1982).
51
United States v. Huie, 593 F.2d 14, 15 (5th Cir. 1979).
47

8

violations of mail cover regulations lead to unauthorized surveillance, the information
surveilled is not protected by Katz and the Fourth Amendment. The violation is therefore
merely regulatory, not constitutional, and thus suppression is unavailable.52
c. Fourth Amendment: United States v. Jones
In 2012, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in United States v. Jones,53 which
is a potential basis for successful Fourth Amendment challenges to mail covers where
Katz-based challenges have been unsuccessful. In that case, the Court held that the
attachment of a GPS device to a suspect’s car, which was then used to track the suspect
on public streets for twenty-eight days, was a Fourth Amendment search.54 Justice
Scalia, writing for the majority, based the opinion on the trespass model of the Fourth
Amendment, in which government agents perform Fourth Amendment searches when
they physically enter or access private property to obtain information.55
While Justice Scalia discounted the validity of the Katz privacy test in favor of the
trespass approach,56 Justices Sotomayor and Alito, concurring, ensured that Katz remains
good law.57 Alito went a step further, basing his opinion in part on what some scholars
have called the “mosaic theory” of the Fourth Amendment, pursuant to which a Fourth
Amendment search occurs when government agents observe enough publicly

52

United States v. Hinton, 222 F.3d 664, 674 (9th Cir. 2000); United States v. Felipe, 148 F.3d 101, 109
(2d Cir. 1998) (citing U.S. v. Caceres, 440 U.S. 741, 755-57 (1979)); United States v. Loudon, 2009 WL
88339, *1-2 (D.Vt.); Kris & Wilson, supra note 1.
53
132 S.Ct. 945 (2012).
54
Id. at 949.
55
Id.
56
Id. at 953.
57
Id. at 954-55, 959-60 (Sotomayor, J., concurring; Alito, J., concurring).

9

ascertainable conduct or information to create a picture of a suspect so detailed as to meet
the Katz privacy test.58 He wrote,
[R]elatively short-term monitoring of a person's movements on public
streets accords with expectations of privacy that our society has
recognized as reasonable . . . But the use of longer term GPS monitoring
in investigations of most offenses impinges on expectations of privacy.
For such offenses, society's expectation has been that law enforcement
agents and others would not — and indeed, in the main, simply could not
— secretly monitor and catalogue every single movement of an
individual's car for a very long period. In this case, for four weeks, law
enforcement agents tracked every movement that respondent made in the
vehicle he was driving . . . I conclude that the lengthy monitoring that
occurred in this case constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment. 59
Jones presents two possible arguments against the constitutionality of some mail
covers. First, Justice Scalia’s trespass argument may lead courts to conclude that mail
covers entail “occupying” an individual’s private property, namely the envelope that she
sends through the mail, and are therefore searches. Second, Justice Alito’s mosaic theory
argument may lead courts to conclude that mail covers of long duration comprise
searches. Both approaches would result in some mail covers being deemed Fourth
Amendment searches. They would, therefore, have to be initiated by a search warrant or
other justification; satisfaction of § 233.3’s requirements would not be sufficient to
overcome the constitutional hurdle.
The trespass argument has some merit in the mail cover context. Just as someone
who drives her car on a public street relinquishes her right to hide the appearance of her
car and her location at any given moment, but does not relinquish her possessory interest
in the car, someone who sends a letter in the mail relinquishes and retains the same
interests. However, Justice Scalia’s trespass argument depended upon government agents
58

United States v. Katzin, 732 F.3d 187, 237 n. 23 (3d Cir. 2013); Orin S. Kerr, The Mosaic Theory of the
Fourth Amendment, 111 MICH. L. REV. 311 (2012).
59
Jones, 132 S.Ct. at 964.

10

“occupying” private property by placing a device on someone’s car. In contrast, mail
covers simply gather information from the outside of an envelope or package; they do not
attach anything to private property. That said, the trespass involved in mail covers is that
government officials must take possession of and detain, if only for a brief moment,
private property in a way that they would not possess and detain it if they were merely
processing mail for delivery. While attaching a GPS device to a car is more obviously a
trespass than handling mail for a mail cover, the difference can be viewed as one of
degree, and not quality. As such, the Jones trespass theory may provide a basis for
Fourth Amendment mail cover challenges.
The mosaic theory argument is more convincing in one way, and less convincing
in another way, than the trespass argument. It is more convincing because the very
purpose of a mail cover is to establish a target’s network of people with whom she
communicates. This type of information is not available unless the target is surveilled
persistently and over a period of days. Mail covers are virtually explicitly meant to create
a mosaic. Furthermore, the maximum initial regulatory period of mail covers is thirty
days — two days longer than the twenty-eight day period considered in Jones (one
suspects that virtually all mail covers are authorized for at least thirty days, no less).
Jones, therefore, speaks directly to the mail cover regime. However, the basis for this
argument is not the originalist, well-established trespass approach, but the novel,
academic mosaic theory. For a court to hold that mail covers are Fourth Amendment
searches, it would have not only to find so under either Katz or Jones, but also to adopt
the mosaic theory. The time may not yet be ripe for such a jurisprudential innovation. 60

60

See, e.g., United States v. Cuevas-Perez, 640 F.3d 272, 284 (7th Cir. 2011); In re Application of F.B.I.,
2014 WL 5463097, *10 (FISC); United States v. Graham, 846 F.Supp.2d 384, 390-91 (D.Md. 2012).

11

d. First Amendment: Paton v. La Prade
While most courts have rejected First Amendment arguments against mail covers
on the grounds that surveillance of the outside of mailings cannot infringe upon free
speech,61 others have claimed that the First Amendment is implicated because mail cover
data reveals much about a target’s “relationships with both individuals and
organizations.”62
In United States v. Gering, the Ninth Circuit rejected a defendant’s argument that
mail covers entail per se violations of the First Amendment, but suggested that there may
be a violation in cases where a defendant can demonstrate an actual First Amendment
burden.63 In another case, the Ninth Circuit implied that mail covers might violate the
First Amendment when initiated for the purpose of abridging First Amendment
freedoms.64
The major case presenting a First Amendment challenge to mail covers was Paton
v. La Prade.65 In that case, Lori Paton was enrolled in her high school’s social studies
course. To complete one of her assignments, Paton wrote a letter to the Socialist Labor
Party requesting information about its program, policies, and positions.66 Paton
inadvertently addressed the letter to The Socialist Workers Party, against which the FBI
had initiated a mail cover.67

61

United States v. Choate, 576 F.2d 165, 180-81 (9th Cir. 1978); Cohen v. United States, 378 F.2d 751,
760 (9th Cir. 1967). Indeed, the recent decision ACLU v. Clapper, which upheld the government’s bulk
telephony metadata collection program, looked for support to prior courts’ rejection of First Amendment
arguments against mail covers. 959 F.Supp.2d 724, 753 (S.D.N.Y. 2013).
62
Choate, 576 F.2d at 203 (Hufstedler, J., concurring and dissenting).
63
716 F.2d 615, 620 (9th Cir. 1983); see also United States v. Mayer, 490 F.3d 1129, 1137 (9th Cir. 2007).
64
United States v. Aguilar, 883 F.2d 662, 705 (9th Cir. 1989).
65
469 F.Supp. 773 (D.N.J. 1978).
66
Id. at 774-75.
67
Id. at 775.

12

When the FBI obtained Paton’s letter, it opened an investigation on her for
“subversive” matter, and a field investigation ensued. It soon became local and national
news that Paton was the subject of an FBI investigation. 68
The district court found that Paton had the First Amendment right to receive her
requested information “free of government interference and to remain anonymous in her
request for political information.”69 The court also, however, limited its holding to
national security cases, finding that they “often reflect a convergence of First and Fourth
Amendment values not present in cases of ‘ordinary’ crime.”70 The court therefore
addressed only mail covers involving national security, ultimately holding that
“[n]ational security as a basis for the mail cover is unconstitutionally vague and
overbroad.”71
In a more recent case, a former member of the Earth Liberation Front and a
current bookstore owner, Leslie Pickering, learned his mail was being tracked.72 In that
case, the post office accidently sent to Pickering a card ordering the mail cover and
reading, “Show all mail to supv” — supervisor — “for copying prior to going out on the
street.” It included Pickering’s name, address and the type of mail that needed to be
monitored. The word “confidential” was highlighted in green. The post office confirmed
to Pickering that it was tracking his mail, but would say nothing else.
These cases suggest three potential First Amendment challenges to mail covers.
While not strictly prohibiting communication or directly infringing upon First

68

Id. at 776.
Id. at 778.
70
Id. at 781.
71
Id. at 782.
72
Nixon, supra note 13.
69

13

Amendment rights, mail covers may chill individuals’ right to associate, 73 to receive
information,74 and to engage in First Amendment activity anonymously. 75 To be sure,
Paton and Pickering knew they were being monitored — often a requirement for a
successful First Amendment claim because it is thought that without knowledge of
monitoring, the monitoring cannot chill First Amendment activities.76 Without
knowledge, there can often be no standing.77 However, the standing requirement has
been relaxed for First Amendment overbreadth claims, allowing litigants to challenge a
law “not because their own rights of free expression are violated, but because of a judicial
prediction or assumption that the statute’s very existence may cause others not before the
court to refrain from constitutionally protected speech or expression.”78
III. Three issues
Based on the mail cover regime and the relevant law, there are three potential
constitutional and privacy issues generated by mail cover surveillance. These issues are
(1) whether mail covers ever entail a Fourth Amendment violation; (2) whether § 233.3,
if it is followed, is adequate to protect Fourth Amendment rights; and (3) whether § 233.3
is adequate to protect sub-Fourth Amendment privacy concerns.
a. Do mail covers ever entail a Fourth Amendment violation?
Courts have uniformly held that mail covers do not entail Fourth Amendment
violations because they function to reveal only information that is already readily visible
to anyone who observes the mailing. Under the Katz expectation of privacy test, courts
73

N.A.A.C.P. v. Alabama ex rel. Patterson, 357 U.S. 449 (1958).
Kleindienst v. Mandel, 408 U.S. 753, 762 (1972).
75
McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Com’n, 514 U.S. 334, 342 (1995).
76
Cooksey v. Futrell, 721 F.3d 226, 236 (4th Cir. 2013); Toscano v. Lewis, 2013 WL 1632691, *5
(N.D.Cal.).
77
See Clapper v. Amnesty Int’l USA, 133 S.Ct. 1138 (2013).
78
Broadrick v. Oklahoma, 413 U.S. 601, 612 (1973).
74

14

have held that no one has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the information
contained on mailings’ external packaging.
Since Jones, however, no court has considered the constitutionality of mail covers
under the Fourth Amendment. Jones presents a potential for mail covers to be found
unconstitutional in some cases where the mail cover surveillance was particularly longlasting and invasive. There are three notable issues in this analysis.
First, the length of time the mail cover is in place matters for two reasons. A
period of twenty-eight days of GPS tracking in Jones was too long to satisfy the Fourth
Amendment, though the Court refrained from setting a constitutionally permissible
period of time during which agents could track a suspect via GPS without a warrant. The
first reason that the length of time matters in the mail cover context is simply that it
mattered in Jones. The second reason that it matters is that § 233.3 authorizes mail
covers for renewable thirty-day periods. Each period is therefore two days longer than
Jones’ twenty-eight days. The length of time a mail cover is in effect could, therefore,
implicate the Fourth Amendment in two ways: the length of time could entail a violation,
and § 233.3 itself, authorizing a thirty-day period, could itself be held unconstitutional, at
least as applied in certain cases.
Second, the intensity of the search matters. Justice Alito’s opinion in Jones rested
in part on how much information officers could glean from a persistent GPS tracking of
the defendants. In turn, how intensive a mail cover is could contribute to whether it
violates the Fourth Amendment.
Third, whether proper procedures were followed matters. Justice Scalia’s opinion
in Jones rested on a trespass theory, which could have been overcome had the officers in

15

that case executed their search warrant in a timely fashion. Just as proper police
procedures in Jones could have led to an avoidance of the trespass-based Fourth
Amendment violation, so could following § 233.3 in the mail cover context. At the very
least, whether the mail cover regulations were followed could contribute to a finding of
constitutionality or unconstitutionality.
The important upshot is that if a mail cover is found to have entailed a Fourth
Amendment violation, then suppression of resulting evidence is an option. However, if
only § 233.3 was violated, then suppression is not available.
b. Is § 233.3 adequate to protect Fourth Amendment rights?
Most provisions of § 233.3 are untroubling from a strictly Fourth Amendment
point of view. Sections (g)(5) and (g)(6), however, present potential constitutional
problems. Section (g)(5) provides for a thirty-day period of mail monitoring, with thirtyday extensions only with “adequate justification.” Section (g)(6) provides for a
maximum 120-day continuous period of monitoring, with extensions beyond that only if
personally approved by the Chief Postal Inspector or his designees at National
Headquarters.
There are two ways that these provisions could violate the Fourth Amendment.
First, as noted above, Jones could be interpreted to mean that even an initial thirty-day
period of monitoring is unconstitutional without a search warrant. Second, Jones should
likely be interpreted to mean that a mail cover at some point of duration becomes
unconstitutional in the absence of a search warrant. How long that period is could
depend upon at least two factors.

16

First, it could depend upon how courts understand the value and volume of
information gleaned from a mail cover. If the value and volume is viewed as similar to
that of GPS tracking, as in Jones, then the acceptable time period should roughly track
that of future cases that refine Jones. Twenty-eight days of monitoring could, in light of
Jones, constitute a violation.
Second, it could depend upon the safeguards in place. In Jones, the government
agents had an expired search warrant, which the Court effectively treated as no search
warrant at all. Therefore, in Jones, safeguards were entirely lacking. Section 233.3 does,
however, provide some safeguards. If followed, they could serve to make mail covers
more “reasonable” for Fourth Amendment purposes and thus enlarge the period of time
mail covers are constitutionally permissible. Conversely, if § 233.3 is not followed, such
a regulatory violation might decrease the amount of time a mail cover may be
constitutionally in effect.79
c. Is § 233.3 adequate to protect sub-Fourth Amendment privacy issues?
Whether § 233.3 is adequate to protect sub-constitutional privacy issues — i.e.
privacy interests that are not protected by the Fourth Amendment — depends upon a
normative assessment of what those issues are. Section 233.3 raises a number of them,
involving who authorizes of mail covers; evidentiary standards and procedures for
authorization; reliability of evidence supporting authorization; and retention of evidence
gleaned from mail covers. A final issue, that of the duration of mail covers, is detailed
above and not repeated here.
79

To be sure, courts prior to Jones did not consider a regulatory violation in their Fourth Amendment
analyses. This was so because the information gleaned was in plain view, so there could be no Fourth
Amendment violation. Post-Jones, however, lengthy surveillance of people and information in plain view
at some point violates the Fourth Amendment. The question is when. The duration of time matters, but so
too should the presence of safeguards and whether procedures were followed.

17

The first potential privacy issue concerns the people who may authorize mail
covers. Section 233.3(d) provides that the Chief Postal Inspector or his designees may
authorize mail covers, and § 233.3(j)(3) makes these authorizations “final and conclusive
and not subject to further administrative review.” This is problematic for three related
reasons. First, mail covers are being authorized by postal inspectors, and not judges, who
have experience evaluating evidence, applying evidence to evidentiary standards, and
judging credibility of witnesses and affiants. Second, the evidence presented by law
enforcement agents to postal inspectors is not presented under oath in an affidavit, nor is
its presentation subject to the penalties of perjury. Third, there appears to be little
scrutiny of the reliability of evidence presented to postal inspectors.
The second potential privacy issue is that there appears to be no appellate process
in place to correct for errors, negligence, or willful misrepresentation. In short, the
process of authorization appears siloed, impervious to external criticism, and not based
on any critical analysis of evidence provided in mail cover applications.
The evidentiary standards and procedures for authorization exacerbate the
problems inherent in the process of authorization. While mail cover applications must be
made in writing,80 they need only state a “reasonable grounds to demonstrate the mail
cover is necessary to” further the legitimate purposes of a mail cover (to protect the
national security, locate a fugitive, etc.).81 The “reasonable grounds” standard is
generally applied to brief, superficial law enforcement encounters with individuals, like
Terry stops and brief, on-the-street seizures.82 These stops and seizures are meant to
permit law enforcement agents to quickly determine whether crime is afoot in as short a
80

39 C.F.R. § 233.3(d)(3).
39 C.F.R. § 233.3(e)(2).
82
Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119 (2000); Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968).
81

18

time as possible. They are not meant to justify persistent, invasive surveillance like a
mail cover. The “reasonable grounds” standard that justifies mail cover orders seems
excessively deferential to law enforcement in relation to the resulting surveillance and in
comparison to other government actions justified by the same standard.
To make matters worse, there appears to be no requirement that agencies that
request a mail cover must meet any level of evidentiary reliability. The rules of evidence
do not apply, nor are they even admonitory guidelines; applicants need not file affidavits
under oath; no hearings are held, as they are for search warrant applications; it seems
sufficient merely to state — with no evidence whatsoever — that a mail cover is
necessary; and there is no provision for a Franks hearing or its equivalent to test the
truthfulness of the contents of an application. Because suppression is not available in the
mail cover context, there is no deterrent to either negligent or intentionally bad police
conduct or rubber-stamping of applications.
Once a mail cover is in place, postal agents begin to collect data on a target’s sent
and received mail. This data must be stored for eight years.83 This is quite a long period
of time, exceeding by three years even the storage period of data the National Security
Agency generates in its bulk telephony metadata program, which Edward Snowden
revealed.84 If privacy advocates have been concerned with the lengthy storage of mounds
of telephony metadata85 and, as another example, automatically collected data on date-

83

39 C.F.R. § 233.3(h)(4).
Klayman v. Obama, 957 F.Supp.2d 1, 37 (D.D.C. 2013).
85
In response, President Obama last year advanced a policy to end the bulk storage of such metadata.
Obama to end NSA’s mass storage of telephone metadata, REUTERS, Jan. 17, 2014, available at
http://www.cnbc.com/id/101345381#.
84

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stamped locations of automobiles,86 they should also be concerned with this eight-year
storage of mail cover data.
IV. Remedies and recommendations
There are a number of potential and actual problems with the current mail cover
regime. First, there appear to be systemic failures to follow § 233.3 with regard to
authorization, justification, processing, oversight, and recordkeeping. Second, United
States v. Jones opens the possibility that at least some mail covers may violate the Fourth
Amendment. Third, even if § 233.3 is followed such that there is no Fourth Amendment
violation, mail covers may violate some sub-constitutional principles of privacy because
there are siloed and unreviewable authorization procedures, low evidentiary standards for
authorization, no checks on the reliability of such evidence, an eight-year data retention
mandate, and potential problems with the duration of mail covers. This section outlines
remedies and recommendations, including litigation strategies, to address these problems.
a. Systemic failures to follow § 233.3
At a minimum, government agents ought to follow their own regulations.
NACDL therefore seconds the OIG’s recommendation to improve managerial controls
over authorization, processing, oversight, and reviews of mail cover program protocols.
These improved controls, however, are only as good as the enforcement mechanisms that
ensure them. Congress should, therefore, considering passing a law that requires
suppression of evidence gleaned from a mail cover if the evidence was obtained during
the course of a reckless or intentional violation of § 233.3. This standard would not
penalize agents who occasionally do not follow § 233.3 provisions because of their focus
86

Bennett Stein, FOIA Documents Reveal Massive DEA Program to Record American’s Whereabouts With
License Plate Readers, ACLU, Jan. 26, 2015, available at https://www.aclu.org/blog/technology-andliberty-criminal-law-reform/foia-documents-reveal-massive-dea-program-record-ame.

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on, say, mail processing or employee turnover, 87 but would require them to ensure that,
over time, these resource issues are not used as an excuse to maintain an illegal mail
cover program.88
b. The United States v. Jones remedy
Katz has never been an effective basis for arguing that mail covers violate the
Fourth Amendment because the expectation of privacy in the outside of a mailing is not
reasonable. United States v. Jones, however, has opened new avenues for Fourth
Amendment arguments against mail covers. Defense attorneys should use Jones to argue
for Fourth Amendment violations and therefore for suppression of evidence generated by
mail covers. They can do so in four ways.
First, as a general matter, attorneys should use Jones to argue that the plain view
doctrine is infirm in the age of mass, persistent surveillance. Because government agents
are able to persistently and easily monitor suspects over time, they can generate a mosaic
image of a suspect with information available only in plain view. As in Jones, this means
that the Katz expectation of privacy test may have new vitality, even where agents
surveille suspects or data solely in plain view.
Second, and specifically regarding certain mail covers, attorneys should argue that
some mail covers entail surveillance for an excessive and therefore unconstitutional
length of time. Jones’ twenty-eight-day period offers a grounded baseline.

87

Lack of resources has, indeed, been claimed by postal authorities as a reason for failure to comply with §
233.3. Office of the Inspector General, United States Postal Service, Postal Inspection Service Mail Covers
Program, May 28, 2014.
88
This approach can be compared to Fourth Amendment law on maintaining warrant databases, pursuant to
which negligent maintenance of databases does not warrant suppression, but that systemic, reckless, or
intentional failure to maintain databases may result in suppression. See Herring v. United States, 129 S.Ct.
695 (2009).

21

Third, attorneys can argue that mailings consist of senders’ private property, such
that any government action upon such mailing (beyond that which is necessary to process
the mailing) is a trespass. In the absence of a warrant (which § 233.3 does not, of course,
require), any information gleaned from such trespass must be suppressed under Jones.
Fourth, attorneys can argue that failure to follow the provisions of § 233.3
contribute to the unreasonableness and thus unconstitutionality of any subsequent search.
To be sure, prior courts have rejected such arguments, concluding that a violation of a
regulation, in the absence of a Fourth Amendment violation, does not make suppression
available. However, Jones may convince courts that a mail cover can be a Fourth
Amendment search. If it does, then the question of the reasonableness of that search
arises. Any regulatory violation could contribute to a finding of unreasonableness.
c. Siloed and unreviewable authorization procedures
Currently, the decisions of the Chief Postal Inspector or his designees regarding
mail covers are unreviewable. This violates basis principles of due process and checks
and balances, and has resulted in abuses throughout the history of the mail cover
program. NACDL recommends the creation of a review or appellate-type system. This
system cannot be based upon suspects or their attorneys challenging mail covers, since to
be effective mail covers must be secret. The system should, therefore, be housed in the
government. Much like current proposals to have a privacy advocate in Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Courts to challenge what have been viewed as one-sided,
rubber-stamping procedures to obtain surveillance orders in the national security
context,89 mail cover procedures should be subject to similar internal controls.

89

Denver Nicks, Privacy Advocates Call for FISA Court Reform, TIME, July 10, 2014, available at
http://time.com/2970766/privacy-freedom-act-reform-secret-nsa-oversight-fisa/.

22

d. Low evidentiary standard and unreliable evidence
Currently, mail cover authorizations require only reasonable grounds, and there
exist no apparent checks on the reliability of evidence presented to support such a low
evidentiary standard. This low bar has been criticized in the national security context,
and should be addressed in the mail cover context. Section 233.3(e)(2) provides that one
may authorize a mail cover “when the requesting authority specifies the reasonable
grounds to demonstrate the mail cover is necessary.” NACDL recommends that this
provision be altered to authorize a mail cover “when the requesting authority specifies the
reasonable grounds to demonstrate the mail cover is necessary and the Chief Postal
Inspector or his designee concludes there are articulable facts, based on reliable
evidence, to believe the mail cover is necessary.”
The authorizing person should then be required to record and maintain the
articulable facts and reasons the supporting evidence is reliable. During a subsequent
criminal proceeding, suppression of evidence should be an available remedy if a judge
determines that there were no articulable facts or the evidence supporting them was
unreliable.
e. Eight-year data retention mandate
There appears to be no justification for maintaining mail cover data for eight
years; if national security-related telephony metadata is retained only for five years, the
retention of more mundane mail cover data for eight years seems arbitrary. NACDL
recommends that the Postal Service and Congress consider revising that period down.
While a certain period of data retention is justified — both for law enforcement purposes
and to protect potential defendants’ rights — that period should be grounded in reason.

23

Conclusion
While mail covers have been used since the nineteenth century, their benefit to
law enforcement must be analyzed in light of their demonstrated abuses. The 2014 OIG
report is just the latest evidence that the mail cover program is not always followed
according to law. Even if the law were followed, Fourth Amendment and privacy
concerns persist.
This report has detailed the mail cover program, its abuses and systemic failures,
the relevant law, and has provided a set of recommendations that can protect individuals’
privacy while permitting law enforcement agents to use mail covers to effectively
investigate crime. In the post-Jones and national security era, addressing the potential for
mail covers to violate the Fourth Amendment and privacy norms is more important than
ever.
***

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