Customs Bill Passes House

The U.S. House of Representatives yesterday passed H.R. 3129, the Customs Border Security Act of 2001, which would give law enforcement the authority to open and inspect mail leaving the United States without first obtaining a warrant.

The bill was introduced in October. Under current law, customs officials can open inbound mail, search people leaving the country and search outbound mail carried by companies such as FedEx without a warrant, but cannot open outbound mail from the U.S. Postal Service.

The bill now moves to the Senate. There's no timetable for Senate action.

Though the new provision would allow customs officials to open mail, it would still prevent them from reading correspondence inside without getting a search warrant or the permission of the person mailing or receiving the letter.

In December, the Direct Marketing Association expressed concern about the bill.

“This would be the first time since Ben Franklin created the postal service that seizure and searches, without warrants, of outbound international mail would be allowed,” DMA president/CEO H. Robert Wientzen said at the time. “In addition to civil liberties concerns expressed by others, such a measure would slow the pace of mail and add millions to the cost of shipping goods overseas.”

The USPS also expressed reservations. Deborah K. Willhite, senior vice president, government relations at the USPS, said the agency opposes expanding the searches, saying it would harm privacy, impair international postal services and could hurt the postal system financially.

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