Can You Deliver Mail Yourself In a Postal Service Shutdown?

Woman collecting mail from mailbox
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There are lots of ways to survive a Postal Service shutdown. But can you deliver a letter or flyer to someone else's mailbox yourself if the financially struggling agency is forced to severely restrict services or stop delivery altogether on some days?

The answer is no.

Shutdown or no shutdown, U.S. Postal Service regulations ban Americans from placing anything inside a mailbox that hasn't been routed through the agency's massive network of processing and distribution facilities across the nation.

The rule has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Postage must go through the United States Postal Service and be delivered for it to be valid postage and therefore acceptable in the mail receptacle," the Postal Service advises. "A flyer cannot be placed in a mailbox after putting a stamp on it unless the item was actually mailed."

Why You Can't Deliver Mail Yourself

Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe warned that his agency is so financially strapped that it faces a shutdown in 2012. "The Postal Service is on the brink of default," Donahoe said at a U.S. Senate hearing.

No matter.

Even in a Postal Service shutdown, you can't deliver the mail yourself.

"If you have a curbside mailbox or a mailbox on the outside of your house, Postal Service regulations govern what can and can not be placed in them. Generally speaking, only mail that has been sent through the USPS may be placed in these types of receptacles," the Postal Service advises.

Here's what Section 508.3.1.3 of the Postal Service's Domestic Mail Manual says about delivering letters or other materials yourself:

"No part of a mail receptacle may be used to deliver any matter not bearing postage, including items or matter placed upon, supported by, attached to, hung from, or inserted into a mail receptacle. Any mailable matter not bearing postage and found as described above is subject to the same postage as would be paid if it were carried by mail."

The Postal Service defines postage as "payment for a delivery service that is affixed or imprinted to a mailpiece, usually in the form of a postage stamp, permit imprint, or meter impression."

Exceptions to Postal Service Regulation

There is an exception to the U.S. Postal Service's seemingly tough regulations. If you want to deliver a letter, flyer or brochure through the mail slot on someone's front door, go right ahead. The same goes for nonlockable bins or troughs used with apartment house mailboxes.

"USPS regulations do not govern what can be placed in a mail slot on your door," the Postal Service advises. "This means that if a local business wants to put a flyer in the mail slot, they can do so."

The Postal Service is concerned only about public use of its mailboxes, or maintaining what it calls its "mailbox monopoly." Even though consumers purchase mailboxes with money out of their own pockets, the Postal Service is permitted under federal laws to dictate the terms of access to them.

History of the Postal Service Regulation

Congress adopted the mailbox restriction in 1934, according to the Government Accountability Office, to "protect postal revenue by preventing delivery of unstamped matter to mailboxes."

The U.S. Supreme Court, which heard a complaint from civic groups that the rule infringed on their First Amendment rights under the Constitution, upheld the regulations in 1981.

"The Court denied the groups' claim, ruling that the law and enforcement actions were not geared in any way to the content of the message placed in mailboxes," according to the Postal Service.

"The Court also found that mailboxes are an essential part of national mail delivery and that postal customers agree to abide by laws and regulations that apply to their mailboxes in exchange for the Postal Service agreeing to deliver and pick up mail in them."

Penalties for Delivering Mail Yourself

Anyone caught delivering flyers, brochures or other materials to a mailbox can face prosecution and fines.

Here's what the U.S. Code says about the infraction:

"Whoever knowingly and willfully deposits any mailable matter such as statements of accounts, circulars, sale bills, or other like matter, on which no postage has been paid, in any letter box established, approved, or accepted by the Postal Service for the receipt or delivery of mail matter on any mail route with intent to avoid payment of lawful postage thereon, shall for each such offense be fined under this title."

Violations of the mailbox restriction law can be punished by a fine but not by imprisonment. The maximum fine for each offense is $5,000 for individuals and $10,000 for organizations.