INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) - How does the state of Indiana decide what can appear on your license plate? I-Team 8 compared thousands of personalized plate requests filed over the last three years and found some inconsistencies that could soon be debated as the issue heads to court.
Can you tell which plates were approved and which were rejected?
- ONLINE EXTRA | Plate puzzle: Approved or denied?
‘A BADGE OF HONOR’
Indiana’s personal license plate (PLP) program has been suspended since July after the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed a lawsuit asking a judge to declare the state statute governing it “unconstitutionally vague.” The ACLU claims the law infringes on free speech and that the Bureau of Motor Vehicles uses “nebulous standards” in its decision making process.
The lawsuit was filed in May on behalf of Greenfield police officer Rodney Vawter, whose plate renewal was rejected by the BMV in March after he had already displayed it on his car for three years.
Vawter, who had previously stayed silent on the reasons behind the filing, spoke exclusively to I-Team 8.
"I was told nothing vulgar or obscene. I said OK. I'm a police officer. I've been called pig several times. I felt that it was humorous, and I wanted it on the plate,” he said.
Vawter requested the word “OINK” to be put on his Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) plate.
“I was told the “OINK” plate could not be taken, because it was already on another vehicle,” he said. “So, I came up with 0INK — with a zero. It was approved."
That was in 2010.
From then until March 2013, Vawter proudly displayed the plate on his personal vehicle. It was renewed by the BMV twice, and Vawter says he never heard a single complaint about it.
“Actually, a lot of people would come up to me and tell me they thought it was funny. It’s a badge of honor for me,” he said.
But, in April 2013, the BMV suddenly decided Vawter’s plate had to go.
"I got a letter from BMV saying the plate is offensive and misleading,” he said. “I've had the plate for three years. And, now they're saying it's offensive and misleading?"
Vawter says the letter gave him three options.
“I could pick a new personalized plate, request a hearing, or do nothing and I would be mailed a new passenger plate. I requested a hearing and sent it certified, and received a signature on that certified letter. I called and talked a representative from BMV that I was transferred to multiple times, and they had no idea what I was talking about,” he told I-Team 8.
So, Vawter contacted the ACLU.
STATE OF CONFUSION
According to agency records, the BMV has approved or renewed more than 121,000 personalized plate requests since 2010, including Vawter’s original “0INK” plate.
Many of the approved plates bore clever messages, like “KID TAXI,” “GDAYM8Z,” and “GOT MILK” — on an Indianapolis Motor Speedway commemorative plate.
But, the BMV has also rejected more than 1,800 plate requests during that same time period. The reasoning behind most of them seems to be obvious.
"I STAB U,” “CARRBOM” and "MURDER" were deemed too violent.
“XXXR8D,” “SEXXY,” "BIMBO" — and hundreds more that can’t be printed in this article — were deemed to be in poor taste.
Alcohol references like "MMBEER," "BEER RUN," and “DUI” were thrown out too.
But, other denied plates left drivers I-Team 8 spoke with scratching their heads.
"M0ZART," “T0ASTER,” “C0FFEE,” "G0LFER," "MAESTR0" and "BRONC0S" were all denied.
“I don’t see anything wrong with any of those,” said driver Rose Miller, of Indianapolis. “They’re certainly not offensive.”
“BRONC0S might be offensive to me,” laughed driver Scott Chisholm of Indianapolis. “But, I guess maybe there are still some Peyton fans around here. These are puzzling, for sure.”
The puzzles didn’t stop there.
“FITNEZZ” appeared on the approved list. But, “WORK0UT” was denied.
So was “H00SIER.”
“That’s got to be [automatic],” said Tom Sizemore of Indianapolis. “Why wouldn’t [H00SIER] be approved?”
“On a scale of 1-10, that’s an 8 or 9 surprise to me,” said Chisholm.
"GETA MAC" and "FLY SWA" were both denied, because the BMV said they could be viewed as advertising.
But, the agency then turned around and approved "REMAX 4U" and "WALMART."
And when it comes to sports references, the decisions appeared even more confusing.
"ROL TIDE" was deemed "misleading." But, "FSU FTBL" was approved.
“HATEUK” was denied, but “I GO 4UK” was approved.
"1NDY 500" was denied, while “NASCR 48” was approved.
“I don’t get it,” said Chisholm. “I don't think there's anything consistent about what's been denied or approved.”
"Our problem here is that the decision making at the end of the public process appears to be arbitrary,” said Ken Falk, ACLU of Indiana’s legal director, who filed the lawsuit on Vawter’s behalf. “It appears they have, at best, nebulous standards. And, to the extent they have more definite standards, they're not promulgated as required by Indiana law. The public has to be told.”
Falk says there were no clearly defined rules in place when the BMV first allowed, then denied Vawter’s plate.
"The license plate is, in essence, a space that the state has opened up for expression. And, when the state opens up property for expression, it has to administer that in a way consistent with the First Amendment. Merely saying because someone, somewhere in a building in Indianapolis thinks something is offensive, that that should allow the suppression of speech? That will never pass,” he said.
The First Amendment also requires equal treatment of all citizens, Falk argues.
“It's fine for the City of Indianapolis to say you can't march down Meridian Street without a permit. That makes sense. It applies equally to everyone. But, if the city of Indianapolis starts to say only this group can march and this group can't, and only this group can express itself, and this group can't, that's a First Amendment problem. By analogy, we think that's what's happening with the BMV,” he said.
RHYME AND REASON
"I can understand why some of this can be confusing. But, we do have a rhyme and a reason for the decisions we make regarding personalized plates,” responded BMV Executive Director of Communications Josh Gillespie.
The agency says those decisions are made by a seven-member "review team,” tasked with evaluating as many as 12,000 new plate requests every month. During most months, the committee reviews several hundred plate requests per day, Gillespie said.
“It's a dedicated team of individual BMV employees,” Gillespie said. “We review these over email. It's impossible for us to get together over the course of a day to meet daily to go over these plates. But, we communicate daily. And, it's only the ones that are brought to our attention that could be deemed offensive that we actually vote on. We are given the list of what we can approve and deny. Most of the team players are seasoned BMV employees who know exactly what they're looking for.”
Asked what criteria the review team uses when it votes, Gillespie produced a nine point list. Click here to read the list.
Among the criteria are prohibitions of any sexually based words or phrases, alcohol or drug references, violence and profanity. But, the criteria also prohibit specific references, like the use of trademarked or copyrighted material, unless the owner of the vehicle is authorized to use it.
That means “GETAMAC” likely wasn’t requested by someone with the license to use or market Apple products, Gillespie said. But, the BMV claims the REMAX4U and WALMART plates were.
Other plates, Gillespie said, come down to judgment calls.
“We have to review [plates with questions], but some are automatic. Something like ‘hate’ is automatically denied,” Gillespie said.
I-Team 8 found multiple examples where it was, including “H8IUND,” “HATEUK,” “IH8DUKE” and “IUH8R”
But, I-Team 8’s analysis also found that “HATED,” “THEY H8” “H82WAIT” and “BEATIU” were all approved.
The BMV’s criteria also prohibit “number and letter combinations that would substantially interfere with plate identification for law enforcement.”
“If we can look at a plate and it can appear confusing, whether it's the meaning or just the order of the letters and numbers put together, that can be deemed misleading, and that's when it gets denied,” Gillespie said. “In MAESTR0, for example, that's a zero. If MAESTRO is already on the road with an O, it can be misleading on the road. Basically, it would look like there were two MAESTRO [plates] on the road,” Gillespie said.
But, I-Team 8 found hundreds of examples where numbers were used in place of letters, and vice-versa, including an approved “OINK1” plate that appears very similar to Vawter’s.
- ONLINE EXTRA | Plate puzzle: Approved or denied?
Vawter says it’s proof the BMV doesn’t always follow its own rules.
“I don't see how mine is more offensive or misleading than the word ‘great’ spelled ‘GR8T.’ That's misleading. It's not spelled correctly,” he said with a shrug.
Vawter also claims the BMV’s “number-letter” rule didn’t exist prior to his lawsuit.
“I am a law enforcement officer. If you come behind a vehicle that has numbers and letters in it, and the zero looks like an “O” or the “O” looks like zero, you have to run it both ways. It's part of the investigation. An officer [would know to do that], because BMV plates have zeroes that look like “O's,” he said.
Yet, the agency says that’s not why Vawter’s plate was revoked.
"It was because it was an FOP plate. It wasn't because of what was listed on the plate. It was because he put ‘OINK’ on an FOP plate," said Gillespie.
Still unanswered: why the plate was first approved in 2010 and renewed twice. Gillespie said the agency is still investigating, but believes the plate approval was made before software was designed to alert the review team to the type of plate he had.
“It's my belief it probably would have [stayed approved if it had been on a standard plate],” Gillespie said. “It's the FOP plate that caused us to review it. Some things will slip through the cracks. That could be an example of something that got through."
Indiana has offered a personal license plate option since 1978, but hasn’t always used formal policies for deciding what would be approved or denied on a plate, Gillespie said. The legislature's original broadly-worded statute was enacted with little consideration for the litigious society that would develop in coming decades.
“We've tried to keep the guidelines fresh with what is current,” Gillespie said. “So, in a sense, as times change, the policy changes.”
A copy of the 9-point policy currently in use, and provided by the BMV to I-Team 8 reflects a date of July 22, 2013 — four days after BMV Commissioner Scott Waddell made the decision to suspend the program due to Vawter’s lawsuit. But, Gillespie says the date on the policy is not reflective of when it was adopted for use.
"We still had plate requests to review that had been turned in [prior to the program's suspension]," Gillespie said. "That's what that date reflects."
BMV documents show the current set of criteria became policy in April 2009, the year before Vawter first requested his “0INK” plate. Click here to read the documents. Prior to 2009, similar rules were used, but as regulations, not official agency policy, Gillespie said.
WAITING FOR ANSWERS
Falk is also now challenging the BMV's decision to suspend the program until the lawsuit is resolved.
“We believe that under Indiana law, the commissioner does not have the power to decide that a program set up by the legislature should no longer be in effect. We’ve asked the court to intervene,” he said.
On October 14, Waddell submitted his resignation to Governor Mike Pence, effective December 2. No specific reason was given for the decision, and it's unclear what role that might play in a future court ruling on the PLP progam suspension.
No court date has been set yet in the matter, but both sides said they’re pressing for quick answers. For the state, the decisions may come down to a matter of revenue.
“This program does bring us revenue,” Gillespie admitted. “But, we would much rather tread cautiously. A number of states and BMVs have been challenged with lawsuits regarding personalized plates. And, rather than err on the side of error, we would rather err on the side of caution, and receive direction from the courts. We’re acting on good faith, knowing that there will be a settlement to this case. Once the judge comes to a decision, then we can go forward with the program, knowing that we've been told how we can proceed with it.”
Until then, new plate requests won’t be considered, though renewal applications for personal plates are still being processed.
Next month, that stack will include Rodney Vawter’s “0INK” plate.
Will it be rejected or approved?
“I really don’t know the answer to that question,” Vawter said. “I know there's probably some people out there that don't agree with what I'm doing. But, I'm trying to look out for everybody. This is about making it equal for everyone.”
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