Feds Want To Probe Mails for Drugs

Friday, May 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — With drug traffickers becoming more savvy in the use of the post office to smuggle drugs, the U.S. Customs Service is asking Congress for permission to search mail leaving the United States.

The proposal, included in a crime bill in the House, has hit opposition from the U.S. Postal Service which believes such mail is protected by the Fourth Amendment's provisions against unlawful searches and seizures.

Lawmakers heard from both sides Friday at a hearing of a House government reform subcommittee.

``For over two centuries, the American public has had an expectation of privacy in their mail,'' Kenneth Newman, the Postal Service's deputy chief inspector for criminal investigations, said in explaining the agency's views.

The Supreme Court, Newman said, has stated that ``when considering Fourth Amendment protections against warrantless searches, mail is in a special category of effects and is entitled to the same protection accorded a person's home.''

``This requires probable cause and a federal search warrant to seize and open mail,'' Newman said.

Customs officials said the authority is necessary to help curb an increase in the use of mail as a way to smuggle drugs. Private industry companies, such as United Parcel Service and FedEx, already allow Customs to search mail leaving the United States, authorities said.

``Drug traffickers and money launderers are not stupid,'' said Betsy Durant, director of trade operations for the U.S. Customs Service. ``They know we do not search outbound mail now.''

``We believe what is necessary is express authority from Congress,'' Durant said.

Searching is not a problem in the private mail industry, Durant said. ``We have tighter controls over the express consignment industry,'' he said. ``The cooperation with the private carriers is quite good.''