Mailing associations and the U.S. Postal Service welcomed new language in a trade bill that would allow the U.S. Customs Department to open and inspect international-bound postal mail without a search warrant.
The Customs Department already searches all inbound mail and outbound mail sent via private carriers, but outbound mail carried by the USPS is not subject to search without a warrant.
The House of Representatives bill, H.R. 3009, originally let the Customs Department search outbound mail of any size. It was changed to apply to packages weighing more than 16 ounces after discussion by House and Senate conferees. Congress will consider the revised bill after the August recess, and it is expected to pass.
“We are certainly pleased that the House version was not passed, and the Senate version of the provision is vastly superior,” said Jerry Cerasale, the Direct Marketing Association's senior vice president, government affairs. “However, this provision interferes with mail exports from our members going out of the country.”
Moreover, Cerasale said that this will slow the mail process, “and slowing this down decreases the value of exports to the world from the United States. This hurts the economy.”
Though Cerasale said that he didn't think the Customs Department would abuse its power and open every package, “it just gives [Customs] the authority, and you always fear that. We'll have to see how it works. It could very well be that our fears are ill founded. But it would be better if we didn't have to wait and see what happens in practice, and still have the provision that requires a search warrant to search any outgoing mail.”
The USPS, which originally expressed reservations about the House version of the provision, said it supports the new language.
“We think that the 16-ounce compromise is a good compromise for privacy rights and for the sanctity of the mail, and we think it gives Customs the flexibility that they need but protects most private correspondence that would be going out of the country,” said Deborah K. Willhite, USPS senior vice president of government relations.
Willhite said the USPS will have to work with the Customs Department to make the process as smooth as possible. For example, though it is not spelled out in the provision, the USPS expects Customs officers to examine outbound mail at the USPS gateway facilities, which are where it now examines inbound international mail.
Bob McLean, executive director of the Mailers Council, a coalition of corporations, nonprofits and major mailing associations, said, “we call this a victory.”
Though the new provision would let Customs officials open this mail, it still would prevent them from reading correspondence inside without getting a search warrant or the permission of the person mailing or receiving the letter.