TAMPA - Ken Nyfong's mailbox sits atop sturdy dock pilings along Apollo Beach Boulevard, part of a front-yard landscaping scheme of thick round posts stuck into sandy ground.
"I checked when I put it in, and it wasn't illegal then," Nyfong said. "And it's not illegal now."
That doesn't make it safe, said Jay Romer, the father of a woman who was driving a car nearby that hit a mailbox. A passenger died. On Friday, Romer's daughter was charged with vehicular homicide by deputies who said speed was the main factor behind the crash.
Jay Romer is urging people along Nyfong's street and elsewhere to install breakaway mailboxes.
Romer insists he isn't trying to shift responsibility from his daughter. She shares blame with the county and with the owner of the mailbox, he said, as well as the U.S. Postal Service. Romer said he just wants to prevent more death and injury.
"It's not just mailboxes," he said this week. "It's everything from fire hydrants to utility poles to street signs."
The law isn't on his side, but the law is hard to follow. Some examples:
In Hillsborough County, there are no regulations against mailbox supports, only recommendations and guidelines - and there are plenty of those.
On city and county streets, mailboxes are allowed on any kind of supports a property owner chooses.
On state road property, mailboxes are prohibited, and if one is put up, state transportation officials tell the owner to take it down.
"You remember the movie 'The Wizard of Oz,' where the Scarecrow is standing on the side of the road with his arms pointing in different directions?" asked Larry Friend, whose Minnesota company makes breakaway boxes. "That's what the government is doing with mailboxes."
The Hillsborough County Attorney's Office may offer some clarity soon. It has begun a process that could result in an ordinance governing mailbox supports. The push came after the wreck Oct. 25 on Apollo Beach Boulevard.
"I've been asked by the right-of-way management office to look at the legal issues regarding the regulations on mailboxes in the rights of way," Assistant County Attorney Nancy Takemori said this week.
From there, the matter could end up in front of the county commission as a proposed ordinance or in a court of law as a defense in a liability lawsuit - or nowhere.
"I'm only researching it right now," Takemori said.
Rachel Morris, 20, was the passenger in a BMW driven by Romer's 21-year-old daughter, Brittany. The car ran off the road, hit a mailbox mounted on thick dock pilings and launched into the air. Morris died.
Romer has gone door-to-door along the boulevard, urging residents to replace their mailboxes with lightweight, break-away models.
Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies who investigated the wreck said the fault lies with the driver of the car and not what was on the side of the road. They obtained a warrant for Romer's arrest and late Friday morning, she turned herself in at the jail on a single charge of vehicular homicide. She was released after posting $25,000 bail, records show.
"The mailbox did not play a part in the crash," said sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter. "Excessive speed did."
Fire hydrants, utility poles and street signs are allowed on rights of way and most of those are now built to meet federal guidelines on breaking away when hit at certain speeds. Mailboxes are in a class all their own. They are the only privately installed structures that are allowed on rights of way controlled by local governments.
But for rights of way along roads controlled by the state of Florida, private property such as signs and mailboxes are not allowed, said Kris Carson, spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation. All mailboxes must be set off the rights of way on private property, she said.
"Sometimes private property is put up on our right of way," Carson said, like mailboxes or homeowners association signs. "We work with those people to get it removed."
What if they refuse?
"We have bulldozers," she quipped, adding that a civil court procedure comes first.
County code enforcement officers seldom bother with mailboxes at all, said department spokeswoman Kenly Green.
"We don't regulate mailboxes," she said. "We regulate other structures, but not mailboxes."
All inquiries about mailboxes on the right of way, she said, are referred to the postal service.
U.S. postal regulations, however, say only this about roadside mailboxes: "Appropriate mail receptacles must be provided for the receipt of mail. The type of mail receptacle depends on the mode of delivery in place. Purchase, installation, and maintenance of mail receptacles are the responsibility of the customer."
Post office regulations about mailboxes mainly deal with height and distance from the curb, not where they go or how they're built, said Gary Sawtelle, spokesman for the local postal service. Federal highway authorities do recommend mailbox posts and supports that break if struck by a vehicle.
"I don't think that's a law," Sawtelle said, "I think that's just a recommendation."
That recommendation, at least, has specifics: Mailbox supports should be 4 by 4 inches or smaller, or a 2-inch diameter standard steel or aluminum pipe, buried no more than 24 inches deep all so they can safely break away if struck by a vehicle.
The postal service also discourages heavy metal posts, concrete posts, and farm equipment, "such as milk cans filled with concrete" and supports representing "effigies or caricatures that disparage or ridicule any person."
Rules vary by location on where to install a mailbox, and there are no laws requiring how to build a support. Here are some tips from the state Transportation Department.
Mailboxes should be placed with the convenience and safety of customer and carrier in mind.
Mailboxes should be away from passing vehicles, even traffic that veers off the road. When that can't be done, mailboxes should be the breakaway type.
Mailboxes should be set with the bottom of the box 3 to 4 feet above the ground, unless the U.S. Postal Service establishes other height restrictions.
At driveway entrances, mailboxes shall be placed on the far side of the driveway in the direction of the delivery route.