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Staying in the loop
•If you would like to check on the status of the program, the BMV directs you to contact its legislative director, Alex Miller, at ALMiller@bmv.in.gov
Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Marathon runner Joe Harrison has a vanity plate on his vehicle, with a reference to his marathon running.

One ‘0INK,’ and vanity plates in limbo

Vanity plates, personalized license plates, prestige plates. They may have a different name depending on which state you’re from, but it’s all the same – a license plate option that allows the driver his or her choice of alpha and numeric characters to express individuality.

Each state varies in its guidelines for acceptable content on the plate. North Dakota’s BMV regulations allow any combination of seven characters “within reason.” Idaho’s rules say that all requests will be denied that show “obscenity, contempt, prejudice, hostility, insult, racial degradation, profanity, or vulgarity.”

The guidelines for Indiana’s personalized license plate program say that Indiana may refuse to issue a personalized plate if the content is “misleading or offensive to good taste and decency.”

Indiana’s BMV website says that Indiana is “not accepting applications for new personalized license plates as questions regarding the program are involved in court proceedings.” The program has been shut down since July 2013, although drivers who already have personalized plates are able to renew them.

The court proceedings the BMV is referring to began last summer, when Greenfield police officer Rodney Vawter’s personalized plate renewal was denied. His plate read 0INK; he had had the same plate for 3 years.

Believing his freedom of speech had been violated, Vawter contacted the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana. The ACLU sued the BMV on Vawter’s behalf and Marion County Superior Court Judge James Osborn ruled in the case that the state must approve the plate – a decision that has since been appealed by the BMV to the Indiana Supreme Court.

Judge Osborn stated in the original case that the current BMV guidelines are too arbitrary, inconsistent and biased. He ordered the BMV to restore the program under strict guidelines that don’t violate freedom of speech, as there currently are no formal regulations in place for evaluating content requested for personalized plates.

The BMV, however, fears that rewriting the rules will force them to allow offensive plates. Indiana BMV Commissioner Donald M. Snemis contended that the Indiana Supreme Court’s taking up the case may lead to the personalized license program in Indiana disappearing altogether.

This would make Indiana one of a few states not to offer the plates.

Vawter explains that the 0INK plate is a nod and homage to his profession, and isn’t meant to be offensive. However, while his plate request was denied, personalized plates reading “OINKS” and “OINKER” were allowed.

On July 14, the BMV submitted an appeal to the state Supreme Court to overrule Judge Osborn’s initial ruling.

The ACLU contended in legal documents that the BMV should be able to deny plates that are “defamatory, vulgar, or could incite violence.”

Fort Wayne resident Ben Sunderland has had his personalized plate “KTHXBY” (it stands for a shortened, sarcastic version of “OK thanks, bye”) for the past year and a half and plans to get another plate reading “luhlz” (a play on the abbreviation LOL or “laugh out loud”) on one of his other vehicles when the BMV reopens the program.

Sunderland likes the personalized plate program because it allows drivers to personalize their vehicles to suit their personality.

“Mine says that I’m a fairly easy-going, funny guy,” Sunderland said. “I decided on something that would make people laugh.”

Local runner and photographer Joe Harrison has had his personalized plate reading “GORUN26” for the past seven years.

“I was at the height of my running and it was time to renew my license plates,” Harrison said. “I asked if that particular plate was taken and when they said no, I knew I had to have it.”

Harrison wanted to show his passion for running and to educate people on how far a marathon is – the “26” refers to the amount of miles in a full marathon, 26.2.

“I think as long as it doesn’t have something offensive on it, people should be able to put what they want,” Harrison said. “For example, the police officer with the 0INK plate, I think he should be able to keep it.”

But if state legislators deem the current court case not worth the trouble, the entire program could be scrapped.

Nearly 4 percent of all vehicles in the United States have personalized license plates, approximately 10 million.

Virginia has the highest concentration with just over 16 percent of vehicles sporting personalized plates. Texas has the lowest, around 0.5 percent.

Local coach and triathlete Diana Schowe has had the personalized plate “Tri Girl” for the past nine years.

“The plate gives me a quiet way of telling people a little bit about me,” Schowe said. “And if they see it in a parking lot, I can share knowledge about a way of life that has been so rewarding to me.”

As far as license plate frames are concerned, drivers are allowed to put whatever they wish around their plates as long as all text, numbers, and stickers on the plate are fully visible and not obscured in any way.

The sale of personalized license plates was on the upswing across Indiana until the program was suspended in 2013. Sales that year reached 86,000, the highest yet for the state. However, it only equates for just under 3 percent of all revenue the BMV brought in that year.

Even though the subject is being hotly contested by many of Indiana’s most influential organizations, it may still be quite some time until Hoosiers will be able to purchase personalized plates again.

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