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Unlocked-car ticket plan dead in Upper Moreland

The public got so keyed up, the police chief in Upper Moreland is backing off proposed fines for those who fail to lock their cars.

The public got so keyed up, the police chief in Upper Moreland is backing off proposed fines for those who fail to lock their cars.

Thomas Nestel explained that the idea was simply to reduce crime, but worries arose that a police plan to lock unsecured cars would open the door - so to speak - to unfair searches, according to reports.

Although the township solicitor didn't express a problem, "I've had some non-township residents send me copies of the Constitution. That was very kind of them," Nestel said.

The unusual proposal captured national attention, bringing requests from CNN and FoxNews for Nestel to appear, offers he declined.

As outlined at a township meeting Monday, the idea was to give a warning for a first offense, then issue a $25 ticket for any instance after that within a year.

Police or civilian members of the department would enforce the ordinance by checking door handles of automobiles parked on neighborhood streets - not in private driveways- and if a car was unlocked, lock it after leaving a flier or a ticket, he said.

Because thefts from cars are often committed by young drug abusers, such a plan would help drive them out of town, he stated.

But assorted citizens got riled about their rights, and called or emailed the chief.

"Fascist pig was very popular. I've become very comfortable with being called that now," he said.

The attitude perplexes Nestel, since there's wide acceptance of all sorts of rules - like how high lawns can grow.

"There are definitely people who have missed the point on this, and they're focusing on the government making law instead of on solving a legitimate problem," he said.

One emailer sarcastically wondered when Upper Moreland would start fining children who forget to wear gloves in winter.

Although Nestel, a 25-year veteran of policing who's working toward his Ph.D in criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, argued the system would be constitutional, others disagreed.

One man who e-mailed the chief said he hoped to get fined, so he could sue to have the courts toss out such an ordinance.

Suppose locking a car led an officer to notice a bag of cocaine in a side pocket. Police could pursue drug charges, Nestel had said.

But Drexel's Donald F. Tibbs, an associate law professor, said courts were likely to reject the idea that locking a car is a "good faith" action that changes what could be considered "in plain view."

Privacy rights have eroded with moving vehicles, but a parked car is more like a house - opening a door, entering and looking around requires probable cause, and fits the definition of trespassing, he said.

"Plain view doesn't happen once you're inside unless you have a right to be inside," he said. " . . . I think that's a huge constitutional issue."

Neither Nestel nor Tibbs knew of a similar ordinance in the United States, although the idea was recently instituted in parts of Australia.

Much of the discourse was not so polite, however.

"There was some phone calls that were just purely profanity screaming," Nestel said. "I'm pretty used to it. . . . Some people just hate cops."

Still, the chief has no regrets. "This isn't a loss for anybody," he said. "I got the word out about the problem and the easy solution."

No Plan B is in the works, he said.

For example, Upper Moreland won't Tweet unlocked-car locations or try leaving big signs on unlocked cars declaring, "LAPTOP HERE!" he said.

But he does keep 3-by-5 cards beside his bed at night, just in case he gets a fresh idea.