Monday, October 14, 2019

Mail (Carrier) Fraud

Halloween is just around the corner. Maybe you're too busy with law school to properly plan a costume. Maybe the party store has been picked clean by the time you get around to it, and now you're stuck with a risqué postal worker outfit from the bargain bin. Oh well, you can't just show up to the party dressed as a stressed-out law student, right? Except now, that gunner from your criminal law section who reads the U.S. Code for fun starts telling you how your last-resort costume is actually a federal crime. Wait, what? Is your legal career over before it even begins?

Probably not (at least, not for this). 18 U.S.C. § 1730 does state that "Whoever, not being connected with the letter-carrier branch of the Postal Service, wears the uniform or badge which may be prescribed by the Postal Service to be worn by letter carriers, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than six months, or both." Originally enacted in 1872 (17 Stat. 296), Congress amended the law in 1968 to exempt actors and actresses "in a theatrical, motion-picture, or television production," following several years of requests by industry professionals. At first, the 1960s amendment also included the caveat that the portrayal "does not tend to discredit" the Postal Service. That provision was eventually removed in 1990, two decades after the U.S. Supreme Court had invalidated a similar provision about civilians wearing military uniforms in Schacht v. United States, 398 U.S. 58 (1970).

Even though the exemption in section 1730 is narrowly written to cover only actors' portrayals, it’s unlikely that anyone will find themselves in legal hot water over a postal-worker Halloween costume. For one thing, the law concerns officially-prescribed postal uniforms (so definitely don't borrow a friend's or family member's real postal uniform for Halloween). Considering that the U.S.P.S. itself sells licensed reproductions of its uniforms as children's Halloween costumes, that "sexy letter carrier" costume from the party store is, most likely, just guilty of questionable taste.

The story of section 1730's history, and that of many other unexpected and lesser-known federal crimes, can be found in attorney Mike Chase's recent book How to Become a Federal Criminal: An Illustrated Handbook for the Aspiring Offender (Cox Collection PN6231.C73 C43 2019). This entertaining legal humor text was inspired by the author's popular Twitter account, @CrimeADay, which highlights a different federal crime daily. Additional titles of interest in Duke's collection include You May Not Tie an Alligator to a Fire Hydrant: 101 Real Dumb Laws (K184 .K66 2002) and the 2016 e-book America's Oddest Laws. For help locating these or other legal humor titles, be sure to Ask a Librarian.