case law update

First Circuit: No Privacy Interest in Mail Sent to Others at Defendant’s Personal Addresses

Yesterday, the First Circuit denied a defendant’s privacy interest in mail addressed to his “personal addresses” that responded to fraudulent invoices the defendant sent to various trade associations.

From 2008 to 2012, Darren Stokes sent fraudulent invoices to businesses purporting to be from legitimate trade associations. Stokes identified target businesses by purchasing lists of business’ fax numbers and hiring a company, Profax, to send invoices to those numbers.

In each invoice, Stokes requested that the recipient send annual membership dues to the trade association at a Massachusetts address where Stokes received mail. Stokes was not listed as a recipient or a sender on these mailings. Stokes then cashed the checks using United Check Cashing, a business where customers could cash checks immediately without the need to establish a bank account.

In 2012, postal inspectors seized envelopes addressed to the American Dental Association mailed to a P.O. Box in Brockton, Massachusetts, to the National Association of Manufacturers at a Willard Street address in Quincy, Massachusetts, to the Automotive Parts Remanufacturers Association at a Blaine Street address in Brockton, and to the American Trucking Association at the same Blaine Street address.

Stokes was charged with 8 counts of wire fraud, based on calls that Stokes made to Profax, and 7 counts of mail fraud based on 7 of the seized envelopes in which the Government received consent to open by their senders. Stokes sought to suppress the seized mail before the district court. The district court denied the motion, explaining that “no mail addressed to Stokes personally ha[d] ever been opened” and that he lacked “standing to challenge the seizure of letters addressed to someone else altogether.”

Stokes appealed the denial of his motion to suppress to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, contending that the search and seizure of his mail constituted a violation of the Fourth Amendment as his mail was opened without a warrant and in violation of postal regulations, statutes, and a court order in a related civil case.

The court of appeals agreed with the district court, finding that Stokes’s inability to demonstrate a reasonable expectation of privacy in the items searched and seized was fatal to his claim. As stated by the court of appeals, under the “standing” doctrine, the defendant carries the burden of making a threshold showing that he has a “reasonable expectation of privacy in the area searched and in relation to the items seized.” Only then can he “challenge the admissibility of evidence on [Fourth Amendment] grounds.”

The court of appeals dedicated the bulk of its analysis to 2 general categories of claims regarding the searches and seizures: the search of the Brockton P.O. Box and the seizure of envelopes from the Brockton P.O. Box as well as those withheld from delivery at the Willard Street and Blaine Street addresses.

The court of appeals first addressed Stokes’s contention that the search of his P.O. Box violated the Fourth Amendment. Prior to this case, the court of appeals had not yet decided whether a defendant could hold a reasonable expectation of privacy in a rented mailbox in circumstances like those here.  Still, the court had previously explained that the reasonableness of a defendant’s expectation of privacy could depend on facts, including the layout of the mailroom and mailboxes, the commercial mail receiving agency’s procedures for delivery and storage, and the agreement between clients and the agency. See United States v. Burnette, 375 F.3d 10, 17 (1st Cir. 2004), vacated on other grounds, 543 U.S. 1181 (2005).

Here, the court of appeals did not find that Stokes provided sufficient information regarding any of these factors. Stokes contended that having a key to the P.O. Box created a reasonable expectation of privacy as it demonstrated his exclusive access to the box. However, Stokes conceded at oral argument that he did not have information regarding the accessibility of the P.O. Box. As such, the court of appeals found that Stokes failed to carry his burden to prove his legitimate expectation of privacy in the P.O. Box.

Next, the court of appeals examined Stokes’s privacy interest in the seizure of mail addressed to his P.O. Box, the Willard Street address, and the Blaine Street address. The court began by noting that many federal courts of appeals are reluctant to find that a defendant holds a reasonable expectation of privacy in mail where he is listed as neither the sender nor the recipient absent some showing of a connection. However, the court stated that it did not need to decide whether a defendant ever could have a reasonable privacy interest in mail where he is not listed as the sender or the recipient at this time.

The court of appeals found no connection between the mail received at the various locations and Stokes in this case. Stokes’s assertion that the mail was delivered to his “personal addresses” failed to shed light on various factors uses to determine standing. The court did not know whether anyone else had access to the various locations the mail was sent, what the nature of the delivery receptacle was, or any other information that could shed light on the reasonableness of his privacy interest. Thus, the court found that Stokes provided little support for his contention that an address alone could create a reasonable expectation of privacy in a parcel.

As such, First Circuit affirmed the district court decision denying Stokes’s motion to suppress.

Read the full case: United States v. Stokes


This case law update was written by Michael J. Sgarlat, associate attorney, Shaw Bransford & Roth, PC.

For thirty years, Shaw Bransford & Roth P.C. has provided superior representation on a wide range of federal employment law issues, from representing federal employees nationwide in administrative investigations, disciplinary and performance actions, and Bivens lawsuits, to handling security clearance adjudications and employment discrimination cases.

Posted in Case Law Update

Tags: Fourth Amendment, case law update, expectation of privacy, mail fraud, michael j sgarlat, mail


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