Federal Prosecutions Resulting from U.S. Postal Service Investigations Hit Record Low

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service recently made headlines with its arrest of Steve Bannon, who was charged with defrauding donors in a private effort to raise money for President Trump's border wall. The latest available data from the Department of Justice show that while few such arrests may garner headlines, Postal Service arrests are usually routine occurrences. During the first ten months of FY 2020 the government reported that 1,200 new criminal prosecutions were filed from investigations led by the Postal Inspection Service[1].

If these prosecutions continue at the same pace, the annual total of prosecutions will be 1,440 for this fiscal year. However, this number represents a record low - the lowest number of prosecutions since systematic tracking began in FY 1986. In FY 1986 Postal Service investigations led to 3,647 prosecutions-over two and a half times the pace during FY 2020.

Table 1: Criminal Prosecutions referred by the USPS
Number Year-to-date 1,200
Percent Change from previous year -18.1
Percent Change from 5 years ago -17.5
Percent Change from 10 years ago -41.1
Percent Change from 20 years ago -47.5

According to the case-by-case information analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, this estimate is down 18.1 percent over FY 2019 when the number of prosecutions totaled 1,758[2]. While some of the decline in FY 2020 may have occurred because of the COVID-19 partial court shutdown, prosecutions during the first half of FY 2020 before the pandemic hit were already lower than the comparable period in FY 2019.

Prosecutions over the past year are also considerably lower than they were ten years ago. Overall, the data show that prosecutions of this type are down 41.1 percent from the level of 2,444 reported in 2010 and down 47.5 percent from the level of 2,745 reported in 2000. See Table 1.

The long term trend in prosecutions for these matters going back to FY 2000 is shown more clearly in Figure 1. The vertical bars in Figure 1 represent the number of prosecutions of this type recorded each fiscal year. Projected figures for the current fiscal year are shown. Each presidential administration is distinguished by the color of the bars. The comparisons of the number of defendants charged with offenses are based on case-by-case information obtained from the Executive Office for United States Attorneys by TRAC after successful litigation under the Freedom of Information Act.

Figure 1: Criminal Postal Service Prosecutions over the last 20 years
(Click for larger image)

Which Offenses Does the Postal Service Investigate?

Three classes of offenses account for over five out of every six (85.9%) prosecutions where the type of offense was listed[3]. Leading the list are what the Justice Department classifies as "postal crimes." Postal crimes accounted for one out of three (34.3%) prosecutions. The lead charges for these offenses, in descending order of occurrence during FY 2020, were: theft or receipt of stolen mail matter (18 USC 1708); theft of mail matter by officer or employee (18 USC 1709); delay or destruction of mail or newspaper (18 USC 1703); obstruction of mails generally (18 USC 1701); and misappropriation of postal funds (18 USC 1711).

The second most common class of offenses involved using the mail for the commission of a wide variety of different types of frauds. These accounted for three out of every ten (30.3%) offenses. Fraud schemes included financial institution fraud, identity theft, consumer, telemarketing, securities, fraud in federal programs, bankruptcy fraud, computer, corporate, health care, commodities, tax and mortgage frauds.

The third class of offenses involved various drug trafficking crimes where use of the mail was involved. These accounted for one out of five (21.3%) prosecutions during FY 2020. Lead charges were brought under the drug statutes such as 21 USC 841 (drug abuse, prevention and control) and 21 USC 846 (attempt and conspiracy).

Top Ranked Judicial Districts

While populous urban judicial districts held the top five slots for the most Postal Service prosecutions, relative to population these districts were surpassed by rural and smaller districts. Thus, the Central District of California (Los Angeles) had the most prosecutions with 95, relative to its population it fell to twenty seventh out of ninety districts.

Table 2 shows the top ten districts based upon the number of Postal Service prosecutions relative to their population size.

Table 2: Top 10 districts (per one million people)
Judicial District Percapita Count Rank 1yr ago 5yrs ago 10yrs ago 20yrs ago
R. I. 30 26 1 3 31 58 87
N Dakota 27 17 2 1 4 15 70
Alaska 15 9 3 5 3 5 3
Wash, E 13 17 4 87 2 81 22
S Dakota 12 9 5 2 6 55 74
W Virg, S 12 9 6 12 47 40 17
N. Y., S 11 48 7 10 12 10 5
Tenn, W 11 14 8 7 1 2 7
N. Y., W 10 24 9 38 16 26 65
Texas, N 9 57 10 11 9 25 12
  • The District of Rhode Island—with 29.5 prosecutions as compared with 4.4 prosecutions per one million people in the United States—was the most active thus far during FY 2020. The District of Rhode Island was ranked third a year ago, but was much lower in the rankings ten and twenty years ago.

  • The District of North Dakota ranked second. The District of North Dakota was ranked first a year ago, while it was ranked fourth five years ago. The district's position ten years ago was fifteenth and seventieth twenty years ago.

  • The District of Alaska now ranks third. The District of Alaska was ranked fifth a year ago, while it was ranked third five years ago. Alaska has consistently ranked high over the years. The district's position ten years ago was fifth and third twenty years ago.

The federal judicial district which showed the greatest projected growth in the rate of prosecutions compared to one year ago—919 percent—was Eastern District of Washington (Spokane). Compared to five years ago, the district with the largest projected growth-420 percent-was Rhode Island.

In the last year, the judicial District Court recording the largest projected drop in the rate of prosecutions—46.0 percent—was South Dakota.


After publishing the report we added footnote 1 that further breaks down the total of referrals originally attributed to the U.S. Postal Service. We explain that a number of these referrals came from the Office of Inspector General of the Postal Service.


[1] This includes 153 prosecutions that actually resulted from referrals from the Office of Inspector General of the Postal Service. It has primary responsibility to investigate postal employees for any crimes they commit. About two-thirds (101) of these are postal crimes, while the others involve frauds, drugs, official corruption and other offenses.

[2] The 2019 Annual Report of the United States Postal Inspection Service claims responsibility for 4,995 convictions during FY 2019, including 2,067 convictions for mail theft and 2,063 convictions for prohibited narcotics. The report does not identify whether the agency was the lead investigative agency or simply played some type of supporting role. The statistics reported here are for cases where the Postal Service was credited as the lead investigator agency, and are based upon case-by-case Department of Justice United States Attorneys records on each federal prosecution filed.

[3] Out of the 1,200 prosecutions, 184 did not list the lead charge.

TRAC offers free monthly reports on program categories such as white collar crime, immigration, drugs, weapons and terrorism and on selected government agencies such as the IRS, FBI, ATF and DHS. For the latest information on prosecutions and convictions, go to https://trac.syr.edu/tracreports/bulletins/. In addition, subscribers to the TRACFed data service can generate custom reports for a specific agency, judicial district, program category, lead charge or judge via the TRAC Data Interpreter.