Police Chief Thomas Nestel has a radical - and riling - idea for car owners in Upper Moreland Township:
Lock it, or get hit in the pocket.
The aim of a proposed $25 fine, Nestel said, is to reduce thefts of items from cars and, in so doing, help rid the eastern Montgomery County municipality of thieving drug abusers.
The proposal, aired Monday night at a township commissioners' meeting, raised the eyebrows of one local law professor, and angered some who see it as another cash-collecting government intrusion that tramples people's rights.
"We have a constitutional right to keep our doors unlocked any time we want, you fascist scum," one person said in a voice-mail message for Nestel. The caller threatened to sue if the commissioners enacted the measure.
The proposal might be a first, at least in these parts. Neither Nestel nor Drexel University law professor Donald F. Tibbs said they knew of such fines elsewhere. News reports say unlocked-car fines have been instituted in parts of Australia.
Making money for the municipality is not the goal, Nestel said. "I wouldn't care if it was a $5 fine, as long as it got people to lock their doors."
"What I'm trying to address is the criminal element coming into our community."
Under the proposal, he explained at the commissioners' meeting, no fine would be levied the first time an unlocked car is found parked on a residential street.
The police officer, or a civilian member of the department, would leave an informational flier on the driver's seat and lock the vehicle.
Each subsequent offense within a year could bring a $25 fine. No court costs would be added, no cars towed, and no citations written for unlocked cars in owners' driveways, Nestel said.
Generally, he said, a police officer or community-service representative would go to areas with high reports of thefts from autos, and check all parked cars on a street.
"If we open the door and a kilo of cocaine was in the door pocket, I think we should probably take action," he said, calling such a circumstance highly unlikely.
The fine and its enforcement could raise legal issues, said Tibbs, an associate professor at Drexel's Earle Mack School of Law, who this week was teaching students about constitutional rights relating to autos.
Courts generally give police more leeway to stop cars that are being driven and search them, Tibbs said. Erratic driving or slurred speech can justify a search of a car, in part because the evidence could drive away.
But in constitutional terms, a parked car is more like a house, Tibbs said. If an officer opens the door and goes inside, he said, that seems like trespassing.
He said an officer's claim of entering in "good faith" because of an unlocked door, then happening to notice drugs in "plain view," might not hold up in court.
Checking car locks in some neighborhoods but not others "also sets off questions of policing in different ways in different communities," Tibbs said.
Nestel called such concerns unwarranted. "I'm amused at the constitutional law references," he said, noting that he co-taught a criminology course at the University of Pennsylvania that covered constitutional procedure. Nestel, who was a Philadelphia police officer for 22 years and boasts three master's degrees, said he was a candidate for a doctorate in criminology.
The goal of the proposal, he said, "is to reduce our theft from autos and to push drug abusers out of our community. . . . The criminal profile for this particular offense is a teenager with a drug-abuse problem."
In 81 reports of thefts from autos this year in Upper Moreland, he said, 61 owners said they had left cars unlocked, and a dozen were unsure if their cars had been locked.
Nestel told the commissioners that he doubted such an ordinance would trigger more breaking of car windows by would-be thieves.
But the proposal has triggered strong feelings. One man e-mailed Nestel to say he would leave his car unlocked, the better to "get into a constitutional battle with the town at the taxpayers' expense."
The township's health and safety committee is to meet Nov. 8 to decide whether to forward the proposal to the full Board of Commissioners.
Upper Moreland has no plans to try what a British town attempted last year. Police removed valuables from unlocked cars - then left notes advising that the items could be retrieved at Twickenham police station.