Ever notice that sometimes, your mail takes a tad longer to arrive than it should? It could be that Big Brother decided to pull your package from the normal delivery process, as part of their ongoing efforts to detect drug trafficking via Express Mail. What you might not expect is that our Constitution protects our mail from government intrusion–though there are some red flags that will convince a judge to allow the post office to open a package.
Here’s a quick breakdown of what happens in a drug trafficking case involving mailed packages. When a package is taken out of it’s normal mail cycle, it is considered “seized”, and as such, law enforcement must have “reasonable suspicion” to do so (as you know, our government may only seize our stuff when they have a reasonable suspicion that we’re committing a crime of some sort). Once the package is ‘seized’, it may be examined by a drug dog, and a warrant will be issued to open the package should the dog alert for the presence of drugs (typically, the post office will line up 6 packages, five which they know do not contain drugs, and the suspected package). If drugs are found, a “controlled delivery” of the package will be conducted by undercover officers. Basically, a controlled delivery is simply an undercover cop dressing up as a mailman, driving the mail truck to the address, and even delivering mail to neighbors to make the delivery seem more believable. Whoever accepts the package will be arrested. In addition, a judge may also issue an anticipatory search warrant of the entire home to which the package was delivered.
In cases of drug trafficking via U.S. Mail, our courts have come up with a list of the factors which permit a package to be seized, and all of these are fairly innocuous independently. Here’s some of those factors: (1) the use of Express Mail, (2) the weight of the package, (3) the package is sent from Puerto Rico, a known drug source location, (4) the package was mailed from a post office address outside of the zip code on the return address, (5) an Accurint check reveals that no one by the sender’s name lived at the return address, (6) the package is heavily taped at all seams, and (7) the label is handwritten. See United States v. Angel Colon, 386 Fed.Appx. 229 (3d DCA 2010) for a more info.
It’s worth noting that the Postal Service’s “drug package profile” has not been specifically adopted by our courts as grounds for seizing a package–and yet, not many courts have ruled against the profile either. Below is a further breakdown of various court opinions permitting police to seize packages:
(1) The use of Express Mail. Here’s the thing about express mail–99.99% (don’t quote me on this percentage…) of all express mail is simply envelopes involving paperwork, checks, contracts, whatever. Express Mail is primarily used by businesses for document delivery. So, when law enforcement sees an express mail package of a certain size and weight, they are immediately suspicious. Drug traffickers like express mail because it enables them to track the location of the package.
(2) The weight of the package. A package’s outward form and weight may always be examined without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Time and time again, drug traffickers are mailing approximately one kilo of cocaine per package, plus some dummy weights. Law enforcement already knows this, and will immediately suspect such a package.
(3) The package is sent from Puerto Rico. It’s one thing to use express mail for a “package” rather than paperwork–but suspicions rise to a whole new level when the package is coming from Puerto Rico. There are certain post offices in Puerto Rico that are particularly suspicious in the eyes of law enforcement because of their history of drug trafficking from that location.
(4) The package is mailed from a post office outside the zip code of the return address. This makes the return address seem iffy, which factors into number 4, below.
(5) An Accurint check reveals that no one by the sender’s name lives at the return address. With the advent of computers these days, you would think that making up a fictitious return address would be a dumb thing to do. “Accurint” is the post office’s computer search program that contains address information, but the Postal Inspector Service Analysts can also get old school, checking out Google and Facebook for more info on the sender or recipient of the package.
(6) The package is heavily taped at all seams. There may be a bit of urban myth to this, but it seems that drug traffickers believe heavy taping can help evade detection by drug dogs. The heavy taping may or may not help evade detection–but we know one thing for sure–it certainly helps draw police attention to the package!
(7) The label is handwritten. Part of this relates to #1, the nature of most express mail packages: business-to-business, or business-to-client. So, when you have 99% of all express mail coming from businesses in the form of envelopes with papers inside and a typed/preprinted label–it’s kind of suspicious to see a “package” with a handwritten label.