A few days ago, a friend of mine braoke a federal law: He sent out some important letters by Federal Express.
He wanted the letters to get to their destination and he wanted them to get there fast.
And that's how he became a criminal.
Hold on, you say. Sending a letter by Federal Express isn't a crime.
But you are wrong. It is.
According to federal law, you can use a private carrier for your mail only if that mail is "extremely urgent" (and costs at least twice as much as a first-class stamp).
Extremely urgent is defined as requiring an "immediate response" from the person you are sending it to. Immediate response is basically defined as a response on the same day the person gets it.
The letters my friend were sending did not require an immediate response. He just wanted to be sure they didn't sit around on a post office floor for a week.
(That is not a fictional example. I was a U.S. mail carrier one summer, and, when we sorted the mail, if a letter fell to the floor, we never picked it up.)
And so my friend sent his letters by Federal Express, which is against the law.
OK, OK, you say, but it is one of those laws that nobody enforces.
Within the last year, postal inspectors have shown up at a dozen major U.S. companies, flashed their badges and started going through company records.
In Atlanta, Ga., the Postal Service showed up at Equifax, a credit reporting agency, examined the records and decided that Equifax owed the Postal Service $30,000 for using an overnight mail service for "non-urgent" material.
And in the past three years, the Postal Service has "busted" 21 companies for $542,000.
The Postal Service says it is being lenient: It could put violators in jail for 30 days.
All these offending companies could have used the Postal Service in the first place. They could have used the Postal Service's two-day Priority Mail, for example.
Except that there is a little problem with two-day Priority Mail: According to the Wall Street Journal, it fails 23 percent of the time.
And in December, a TV reporter in Spokane, Wash., went into a post office and found "two-day" Priority Mail that was a week old and still 2,000 miles from its destination.
Even though the Postal Service spent $7 million for a new logo lastyear and even though it will probably increase the price of a first-class stamp from 29 cents to 33 cents next year, it still expects to lose $1.3 billion in fiscal 1994.
So you can see why it doesn't want you using the competition.
Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., has introduced a bill to stop the Postal Service from stomping on people this way, but he finds most citizens don't know what the law is.
"I have spoken to any number of audiences and asked how many use Federal Express and virtually 90 percent raise their hand," Mr. Coverdell said. "Then I ask, 'Do you know that it has to be urgent or you're subject to an audit?' Well, they're just stunned."
Federal Express isn't that happy, either. "It's simply unfair for a quasi-governmental agency to send its police to your office and say what service you can use," A. Doyle Cloud Jr., a Federal Express executive, said.
But Postal Service spokesman Paul Griffo makes a classic response: "The Postal Service was established to give universal service to everybody at the same rate, whether you're in the bush country of Alaska or the bottom of the Grand Canyon. In order to provide that service, you can't have people skimming off lucrative areas of our revenue."
But how come companies are able to skim off these "lucrative areas"? Why are people willing to spend $15 to get a letter delivered, when they could spend just 29 cents?
Because we all know how unreliable the Postal Service is, that's why.
And we all know that if the laws preserving the Postal Service monopoly were abolished and it had to compete fairly for the delivery of mail, it would disappear overnight.
Which is a lot faster than it delivers the mail.
But for now, the Postal Service clings to every advantage the law gives it. Including going after people who dare to use the competition.
So you'd better warn your friends. And you'd better warn them quickly.
In other words, don't send them a letter.