Going to Jail Because the Mailman Delivered the Mail to the Wrong Address

June 10, 2013

Imagine going to jail for three months because the mailman delivered a package to the wrong address, and then having your lawsuit for negligence against the United States Postal Service dismissed by the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts. This is exactly what happened to David Alves after he filed a civil action against the United State Postal Service and local Postal Inspector seeking monetary damages against the Postal Service for negligence.

On January 13, 2011, Postal Inspector John Kehoe sought and received a search warrant from the United States District Court in Rhode Island relating to a package addressed to "John Couture, 443 Weir Street, Taunton, MA 02780," which Kehoe believed contained a shipment of marijuana. Kehoe's suspicion was confirmed when a search warrant executed on the package discovered over two pounds of marijuana. In furtherance of the investigation, on the same day, the Massachusetts State Police sought and received an arrest and search warrant from the Taunton District Court for any person who accepted the package. In his warrant application, the Trooper did not address the fact that the property in question has more than one unit and more than one street address. The warrant specifically authorized the search at the noted Weir Street address and "on the person or in the possession of: Anyone who accepts the package for 443 Weir Street, Taunton, containing marijuana."

When the warrants were issued, Kehoe attempted delivery of the package at 443 Weir Street. Receiving no response at Unit # 2, Kehoe knocked on the door of 2 Forest Street, Unit # 4. Alves (who was not a resident) answered the door. Kehoe asked Alves if he was expecting a package, and Alves said that he was. Kehoe handed Alves a US Postal Form for his signature. Alves gave the form to John Rodriguez, the occupant of Unit # 4, who signed the form and returned it to Kehoe. Kehoe delivered the package, which Rodriguez and Kehoe took into the apartment. Alves did not touch the package. Shortly thereafter (and without ever touching the package or signing for it), Alves was arrested.

Alves was charged with possession with intent to distribute a Class D substance, conspiracy to violate the drug laws and violating the provisions of the drug laws in a school zone, all in violation of Massachusetts law. Alves was held in jail between January 13, 2011 and April 13, 2011, when the Bristol District Attorney's Office dismissed the charges against him.

On June 28, 2012, Alves brought suit against the United States Postal Service and Kehoe. He claimed violations of the the Federal Tort Claims Act alleging that Kehoe negligently delivered the package to the wrong address, resulting in his arrest without probable cause and detention, false imprisonment, abuse of process and malicious prosecution. Alves also brought civil rights claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In response, Kehoe filed a Motion to Dismiss the action based on failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.

Kehoe argued that the matter should be dismissed because of sovereign immunity. As a general rule, the United States, as sovereign, is immune from suit unless it has consented to be sued. There is the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), which expressly permits individuals to sue the government "for injury or loss of property, or personal injury or death caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the Government while acting within the scope of his office or employment" (28 U.S.C. § 1346(b). However, the FTCA carves out many statutory exceptions to this waiver of immunity including "any claim arising out of the loss, miscarriage, or negligent transmission of letters or postal matter." Alves' claims were based on the negligent delivery of mail as Kehoe knew, or should have known of the correct postal address for where he was delivering the package.

Therefore, the Court ruled that the United States is immune from suits alleging negligent delivery of the mail. The Court ruled:

When Kehoe delivered the package on January 13, 2011, he was not executing a state search warrant. The state warrant neither authorized nor commanded the delivery of the package. Rather, the delivery of the package was the responsibility of the United States Postal Service. Kehoe discharged that duty on behalf of the Postal Service.

Accordingly, the Court dismissed the claim. As a result, of the Federal Tort Claims Act, Alves had no recourse against the United States Postal Service or Kehoe for the negligent delivery of the package of drugs that caused his arrest and subsequent jailing for three months.

Alves v. United States Postal Service, et al. serves as a harsh reminder that even when your freedom is taken away, there are limits to filing tort actions against a state or Federal government, municipality or government agency. One should always review the Federal Tort Claims Act and the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act when proceeding on a tort action against a state or the Federal government or state or Federal agency.

Contact Attorney Mucci, an experienced tort lawyer, if you think you have tort claims against the state or the Federal government or a state or Federal agency, as there are very specific protocols to avoid dismissal.