Once again, officialdom got so busy following the letter of the law that it didn't notice the forest for the trees. Latest culprit: the U.S. Postal Service. Latest victims: Edie Findeis and Barbara Elliott of Falls Church.

Edie and Barbara are teen-agers who wanted to make a little money this summer. So they hired themselves out as odd jobbers, and advertised their existence by stuffing leaflets into more than 100 mailboxes around their neighborhood.

It's hardly the first time folks in the area have used mailboxes for material other than mail. According to Edie's mother, Jean, "we leave everything -- notes, keys, money." And no one has ever said a word.

The postal people said several, however. On Aug. 6, a letter arrived Chez Findeis. It demanded $20, the cost of delivering 100 leaflets, first class, to households along Woodland Circle and Jay Miller Road.

Thomas DeVaughn, a mail classification clerk at the local post office, explained to Jean Findeis that federal law forbids using mailboxes for anything other than holding mail. Carriers are required to treat whatever they find in mailboxes as mail, and the system is required to charge for delivering it, DeVaughn said.

Jean Findeis asked what would happen if her daughter and Barbara refused to pay the $20. They'd get another bill, DeVaughn said. If they ignored that one, too, they'd be subject to a $300 fine for defrauding the government.

The second bill hasn't arrived yet, so the Falls Church leafleters haven't yet had to decide what to do. "We'll probably pay it," says Edie -- although her instincts may yet lead her to resist.

In the meantime, this question: why couldn't the mail carrier have informed Edie and Barbara of the law as soon as he ran across the first leaflet? That would have taken far less time, and made far fewer waves.