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United States v. Bradford

decided: March 28, 1974.


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. No. IP 73-CR-14. S.HUGH DILLIN, Judge.

Hastings, Senior Circuit Judge, and Fairchild and Pell, Circuit Judges.

Author: Pell

PELL, Circuit Judge.

Defendant Anthony Bradford appeals from a jury conviction for obstructing correspondence in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1702. Bradford had taken a package of printed checks addressed and mailed to his mother after the package was delivered to her home by the postal carrier. The package, mailed by the printing company as fourth class mail, contained a nonpersonalized message to the customer along with the checks.

The sole issue on appeal is whether fourth class mail is covered by the provisions of § 1702. Section 1702 provides, in pertinent part, that:

"Whoever takes any letter, postal card, or package . . . from any letter or mail carrier . . . before it has been delivered to the person to whom it was directed, with design to obstruct the correspondence. . . shall be fined not more than $2,000 or imprisoned not more than five years, or both." (Emphasis added.)

Bradford, while admitting that the box of checks was obviously a "package," contends that the package was not "correspondence," and, therefore, there was no violation of § 1702. "Correspondence," defendant argues, is defined by Webster's Third New International Dictionary, as "communication between persons by an exchange of letters." As the next step in his reasoning, defendant equates "communication between persons" with "personal correspondence." The upshot of defendant's reasoning, thus, is to interpret "correspondence" as used in § 1702 as "personal correspondence." And, since fourth class mail, according to 39 U.S.C. § 4555, cannot be utilized to mail personal correspondence, obstruction of fourth class mail, defendant concludes, can never be a violation of § 1702. Rather, according to defense analysis, § 1702 applies exclusively to obstruction of first class mail, as this is the only means of sending personal correspondence.*fn1 The taking of someone else's second, third, or fourth class mail, it is argued, is covered by 18 U.S.C. § 1708*fn2 and not by § 1702.

In our opinion, Bradford's argument has a faulty premise in that he assumes that all communications between persons are equivalent to "personal correspondence" and, therefore, must travel by first class mail. This approach ignores the fact that words, symbols, or objects may be communicative without being personal correspondence. Vast amounts of nonpersonal communication travel through the mails in second, third, and fourth class--but it is all communication nonetheless. Newspapers and periodicals, for instance, are clearly forms of communication but yet are not personal in nature, as that term is defined by Bradford, and, therefore, can be sent as second class mail. Similarly, mass-mailed brochures, advertisements, and solicitations (colloquially and, in some instances, at least, correctly, termed "junk mail") with which "occupants" as well as named addresses are inundated are forms of nonpersonal communication and can travel by third or fourth class mail.

Thus, even if we assume arguendo that Webster's dictionary definition of "correspondence" as "communication between persons" has some relevance in construing § 1702, defendant's argument, nevertheless, fails to exclude the many forms of nonpersonal communication which can travel second, third, or fourth class. The box of printed checks in the present case, in fact, contained a nonpersonal message to the customer and, thus, was clearly within the provisions of § 1702.

Even more important, however, Bradford erred in his basic approach for interpreting § 1702. The precise dictionary meaning of a word may well be, and here is, less relevant in construing a statute than is the use of the word in a particular context. When § 1702 is read as a whole, the most reasonable interpretation of "correspondence" is that the term was meant to encompass mailed matter of the type here involved, regardless of class. The statute refers to the taking of letters, postal cards, and packages, with no indication that the contents of such items are determinative of whether there is a violation. Given the careful distinctions drawn regarding the content of the mail in defining the different classes, 39 U.S.C. § 4251 et seq., if content were equally decisive for the purposes of § 1702, we think Congress would have indicated this directly.

Other courts, while not dealing specifically with the issue presented here, have also interpreted § 1702 broadly as applying to anything transferred by means of the postal service. In Maxwell v. United States, 235 F.2d 930, 932 (8th Cir. 1956), cert. denied, 352 U.S. 943, 1 L. Ed. 2d 239, 77 S. Ct. 266, for instance, the court stated:

"The plain language of the statute discloses a clear intent on the part of Congress to extend federal protection over mail matter from the time it enters the mails until it reaches the addressee or his authorized agent." (Emphasis added.)

See also McCowan v. United States, 376 F.2d 122, 124 (9th Cir. 1967), cert. denied, 389 U.S. 839, 19 L. Ed. 2d 102, 88 S. Ct. 66; Ross v. United States, 374 F.2d 97, 103 (8th Cir. 1967), cert. denied, 389 U.S. 882, 19 L. Ed. 2d 177, 88 S. Ct. 130.

We also note that § 1702 has been successfully used in cases involving the taking of credit cards, United States v. Marlow, 423 F.2d 1064 (5th Cir. 1970), and government checks, United States v. Owens, 424 F.2d 266 (6th Cir. 1970), cert. denied, 400 U.S. 844, 27 L. Ed. 2d 81, 91 S. Ct. 89; Ross v. United States, supra. In none of these cases was ...

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