State Government and BMV and Government & Economic Development and Government and Law

Personalized license plates on hold after ruling

May 13, 2014

Indiana residents eager to find out if they can personalize their license plates in light of a court ruling that the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles arbitrarily granted or withheld permission for the tags must wait while officials decide whether to appeal.

Marion County Judge James Osborn ruled last week that the BMV violated some vanity plate applicants' free speech rights by turning down some requests while allowing other similar plates.

The BMV was defended by the Indiana attorney general's office. Bryan Corbin, a spokesman for the office, said Tuesday that it was still considering whether to appeal. The agency has 30 days since the ruling last Thursday in which to appeal.

The BMV stopped offering vanity plates last July until the case was decided. A check of its website Tuesday showed there still was no way for motorists to apply for a personalized license plate.

Figures obtained from the BMV through a public records request by The Associated Press show that the number of personalized license plates sold had been increasing since 2011 until last year, when the BMV suspended applications. Since 2011, the number of vanity plates sold has increased by 20,000 annually, until last year, when it topped out at 86,000. That was just 6,000 more than the previous year. That number includes renewals, but not new applications after July, according to the BMV.

Vanity plate sales accounted for only 2.8 percent of the $103 million sent to license branches across the state in 2013, according to the BMV figures.

The original lawsuit was filed by Greenfield police Officer Rodney Vawter, whose "OINK" plate was revoked after three years because the BMV said its content was "offensive or misleading."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed a lawsuit against the BMV based on Vawter's case in May 2013, and Osborn ruled against the state Thursday.

He said the BMV had no formal regulations in place for evaluating the content of vanity plates and ordered it to create formal standards that meet constitutional requirements within six months. It can use the old standards in the meantime, within limits such as barring profanity.

The BMV had cited a state statute that allowed it to refuse to issue a plate that officials deem to contain arranged letters and numbers that carry "a connotation offensive to good taste and decency" or that "would be misleading."

The court found the agency's use of its own standards was inconsistent and biased. For example, the agency revoked an "UNHOLY" vanity plate but allowed vanity plates such as "B HOLY" and "HOLYONE." The BMV also rejected the vanity plate "HATER" but accepted "HATE" and "HATERS."

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