Postal Service Mail Surveillance Raises Legal Concerns

Mail Surveillance raises legal concerns

Photo: IFCAR/Wikimedia Commons

In 2013, when former CIA systems administrator Edward Snowden leaked information to the public regarding the National Security Agency and other agencies’ usage of global surveillance programs, including the tracking of email and phone records, many were stunned. However, previous to an audit conducted by the Office of Inspector General and obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a mail surveillance program that has been going on for over a century known as “mail covers” has been slipping quietly under the radar. Results of the audit—including the fact that almost 50,000 requests were made last year to secretly monitor the mail of American citizens—are raising many concerns regarding efficiency and abuses of Constitutional rights.

Not the Only Mail Surveillance Program

Mail covers is a program where postal workers will record information from the exterior of letters and parcels at the request of a state or federal law enforcement agency or the U.S. Postal Service’s (USPS) own investigative branch, the Postal Inspection Service. According to a report by the New York Times, law enforcement claims this method of surveillance is still “a powerful investigative tool,” providing information to the agencies about an investigation target’s businesses, associates, bank records, and even accomplices.

While mail covers is the one of the older mail surveillance programs utilized by law enforcement agencies, it is not the only one. Mail imaging—a process where computers take photographs of the exterior of all pieces of U.S. mail—has been used for several years as a central component of mail processing. According to the USPS, these images are only stored for anywhere from a week to 30 days. However, law enforcement agencies are able to request stored images of mail sent by investigation targets.

Another mail surveillance program came into effect in 2001 but wasn’t made public until 2013 when reports revealed that ricin-laced letters were mailed to President Obama and former NYC Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. The Mail Isolation Control and Tracking Program was created after the 2001 anthrax scare that killed five people. It allows for the tracking or investigation of mail suspected of containing biohazards such as ricin or anthrax.

Mail Surveillance Inefficiencies and Abuses

According to the New York Times, the requests for mail surveillance come from all levels of government, from global intelligence investigations to state criminal inquiries. While Paul J. Krenn, a spokesman for the Postal Inspection Service, stated that “there has to be a legitimate law enforcement reason” for mail surveillance, according to former FBI agent, James J. Wedick, the program can easily be abused because it doesn’t require a judge’s order or warrant. According to the Inspector General’s audit of the mail cover system, approximately 20 percent of orders for mail surveillance from law enforcement outside of the Postal Inspection Service were not properly approved.

In addition to the apparent ease of instigating mail surveillance, there have also been problems with maintenance of records. The audit revealed that even after orders for surveillance had expired, postal workers were still recording and sending data to the law enforcement agencies who requested them. Of the mail covers audited, 928 of them were still considered “active” even though the order had expired.

Another concern regarding mail covers is the abuse of the system. Typically, the Postal Service is only supposed to grant “mail covers” in regards to law enforcement agencies or issues of national security. However, the audit revealed that13 percent of orders were either unjustified or not correctly documented, and several incidents have come to light proving that regulation of this form of mail surveillance is a serious concern.

In 2011, a county supervisor in Arizona, Mary Rose Wilcox, discovered that the sheriff and county attorney had been using mail surveillance on her. Wilcox believed this was a result of her vocal criticisms of the sheriff’s alleged practice of targeting Hispanics in the area. The sheriff and county attorney used the surveillance information to get a warrant for banking and other information about two restaurants owned by Wilcox and her husband. A subsequent raid of one of the Wilcox restaurants at the local airport resulted in the loss of the contract as well as causing a drop in business at their other establishment. Wilcox sued the county and won in a ruling upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Another case involved a San Antonio defense attorney who discovered that the federal prosecuting team was using mail covers to track communication between the defendant and the defense team. While this would seem to be a violation of Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protecting the assistance of legal counsel (to include private communications between client and attorney), since they aren’t actually reading the mail, mail covers in this situation are not being considered a violation as of yet.

A Commitment to Address Concerns

Other claims of violations of the First Amendment protecting free speech and the Fourth Amendment protecting against unreasonable search and seizure are running into the same hurtles as those claiming Sixth Amendment violations. While reading the actual contents of the mail requires a warrant, simply examining the outside of the packaging doesn’t constitute a violation of a Constitutional right.

Even though this is the case, the audit by the Inspector General brought these issues to light, and as a result, senior Postal Service officials have publicly stated that procedures are being tightened.

“Performance measures and weekly reporting have been put in place to record receipt of outside agency criminal mail cover requests and to ensure timely processing.”

Man Arrested for Marijuana Possession in Retirement Center

marijuana possession in a retirement home

Photo: Torben Hansen/Wikimedia Commons

In an episode of animated show “The Simpsons,” Homer is mistakenly admitted as a patient to his father’s retirement home. Once there, however, he realizes all the comfort care–and medication–the elderly get, and he decides to stay. However, it wasn’t a Simpson’s episode, or even a regular sitcom plot, when a man was arrested for marijuana possession and two other charges at Salt Lake assisted living facility.

Dude, Where’s my Grandma?

On Friday, Oct. 24, at approximately 7 p.m., supervisors of The Coventry, located at 6898 S. 2300 E., reported to police that they smelled marijuana coming from one of the rooms. According to a report from KSL News, when police approached the room, the odor grew stronger. Cottonwood Heights police Sgt. Corbett Ford stated that when Keaton Yates, 24, stepped out of the room, he still actually had a smoldering marijuana joint in his pocket.

“He went up there either to get high with grandma or use grandma’s room,” Ford said, “and hope that nobody would call him out.”

Or maybe he was bringing grandma something else. In addition to marijuana possession, Yates also had oxycodone pills and a butterfly knife on his person. In addition, it turned out he had a warrant for failure to appear in court on a domestic violence assault charge.

He was booked into the Salt Lake County Jail for the marijuana possession, plus investigation of a weapon violation and prohibited acts with a controlled substance.

Marijuana Possession Still Illegal in Utah

Even though our neighbor to the east has decriminalized marijuana possession, it is still a crime in Utah. According to the Utah Controlled Substances Act, Section (2) “Prohibited acts – B,” it is unlawful for any person to possess or use a controlled substance, “unless it was obtained under a valid prescription or order.” Marijuana possession ranges from a class B misdemeanor to a second degree felony based on the amount in the suspect’s possession. In the case of Yates, it would be a class B misdemeanor because he had less than an ounce. The gradients then go from one ounce to one pound, one pound to one hundred pounds, and over one hundred pounds, the second degree felony.

The class B misdemeanor marijuana possession, where most casual users fall, carries a potential jail sentence of up to six months in prison and a fine of up to $1,000. Remember the key is “up to.” Don’t leave your fate in the hands of a public defender. If you have been charged with marijuana possession, contact an experienced criminal justice attorney who is looking out for your best interests.

GPS Stalking Addressed by Multiple Pieces of Legislation

Various legislation addresses GPS stalking

Photo: Beao/Wikimedia commons

While the world is changing, the fact that people are still suspicious of one another, even those they are supposed to be most intimately attached to, remains the same. The technological changes in the world means there are entirely new ways to keep tabs on someone suspected of wrongdoing. Gone are the days are hiring a private investigator or taking on the task personally, trying to covertly follow the suspected party. Also gone are the days when this might have been considered legal in many states. A recent form of tracking, GPS stalking, is a problem that is being addressed by several pieces of legislation on both a state and national level.

Current Laws for GPS Stalking

GPS stalking is tracking someone’s movements using a Global Positioning System (GPS). Such systems are found in many types of cars and smartphones, but they are also available as individual devices which can be covertly attached to a vehicle or stealth apps which can be put on smartphones and monitored.

It has been estimated that in 2006, before smartphones were as prevalent as they are today, more than 25,000 cases of domestic violence were linked specifically to GPS stalking. A recent law in New York known as Jackie’s Law puts more modern numbers to the phenomenon, stating that one out of every four stalking cases nationwide involve some form of tracking technology.

Jackie’s Law was named for Jackie Winiewski, a woman who was murdered two years ago in New York by her boyfriend. Previous to her death, Winiewski had discovered her boyfriend had placed a GPS device on her car, but New York law at the time didn’t allow for prosecution. Jackie’s Law was recently signed into effect in New York, but many are wondering if it is enough. The gist of the law is that it is now illegal to commit GPS stalking, under one condition: the person being tracked must make it clear that electronic tracking is unwelcome. The obvious gray area deals with the fact that GPS stalking would still be legal if the person didn’t know about it.

Currently GPS tracking is legal in many cases, such as for parents monitoring the activity of their children, law enforcement using them for investigations, companies tracking the use of a company vehicle, and even car rental companies, although in the latter situation, many states require the company to notify the renters of such a device. Vehicle owners are allowed to have tracking devices on their car, but some states designate that it is illegal to track a co-owner of the vehicle, such as a spouse.

In Utah, GPS stalking [stalking, in general] is considered an “offense against the person” according to Utah Code 76-5-106.5. The offense ranges from a class A misdemeanor to a second degree felony depending largely on whether or not the offender has been convicted of stalking before or if he/she used a dangerous weapon in the commission of the crime. While the law is unclear whether or not the victim has to first state that they don’t want to be tracked in order for GPS stalking to be punishable by the law, it does clearly state that it is illegal to use “a computer, the Internet, text messaging, or any other electronic means.”

GPS Stalking Legislation on the Table

There are two pieces of legislation currently in the spotlight. Following the lead of Jackie’s Law, Sen. Charles Shumer, D-New York, is promoting a bill that would make any form of electronic stalking illegal nationwide. Concern of the bill is the same concern mentioned in regards to Jackie’s Law. Specifically, enforcement becomes an issue if someone doesn’t know they are being GPS stalked. In addition, attorney Peter Pullano stated that if such a bill becomes law, it would have to be constantly amended to keep up with the changing face of technology.

Another piece of legislation that relates to one of Shumer’s motivations in proposing his legislation aims more specifically at apps that offenders are using to track their victims. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., has introduced the Location and Privacy Act to address the fact that there is no federal law banning apps that seem directly related to GPS stalking. While some of these apps claim to be aimed at parents who want to keep track of their teens, other apps make no attempt to hide the fact that they are advertising to men or women who fear their partner is being unfaithful. One such firm even advertised, “total control of your partner’s phone without them even knowing it.”

In many cases, the offender gives the phone to their partner with the app already installed, but in some cases, they will secretly install the app on the victim’s phone. Either way, Franken considers it an invasion of privacy and tantamount to GPS stalking. Critics of the legislation point out that while some apps definitely seem to be aimed at stalking, other apps offer legitimate GPS services, including apps limiting the use of phones of teen drivers or to monitor people with early-stage dementia.

Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation was quoted as saying, “Congress could and should ban the marketing and sale in the United States of apps advertised and marketed as stalking apps, but that would not prevent would-be stalkers from using a legitimate tracking app for off-label purposes.”

Given the domestic violence statistics and the facts that GPS stalking may have even been responsible for offenders being able to find their murder victims, it is clear that the threat needs to be addressed beyond current law. However, it seems that the considerable “gray area” will need to be explored before proposed legislation is going to be as effective as it needs to be.