You’ve probably heard that it’s illegal to open a letter that was written to someone else, and this is true. In fact, it’s a felony. This is all laid out in a federal statute called 18 USC Section 1702. It’s been illegal in Ohio—and the rest of the United States—for years.

However, one of the key things that you should know is that you have to intend to open that person’s mail for it to be a crime. If you’re ignorant of what you’re doing, you’re not breaking the law. That means that the burden of proof would be on the prosecution to show that you did it intentionally.

For example, you could get six letters in the mail. The first five in the stack may actually be addressed to you. Since it’s your home or business, you’re already assuming the letters are for you, so you might not look very closely at what’s written on the front of the envelopes. Instead, you’ll just quickly start opening them, one by one.

If that sixth envelope is addressed to someone else, it would be easy to rip it open and start reading before you realize what you’ve done. When this happens, don’t worry. You have not committed a federal crime.

The law is written this way because there’s a very large difference between the situation described above and going out to your neighbor’s mailbox to intentionally take his or her letters after they are dropped off. The penalties are not the same for both, as accidents do happen.

If you’re accused of opening another person’s mail, be sure you know where the burden of proof lies.

Source: The Law Dictionary, “What Is The Federal Law For Opening Mail Not Addressed To You?,” J. Hirbyand, accessed April 15, 2016