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Days may be numbered for S.D. vanity tags

By The Associated Press
01.08.08

PIERRE, S.D. — Love that vanity license plate with its cryptic message on your vehicle? It's cute. It's hip. It's clever. It's U!

For the moment, savor it again. But don't get too attached because South Dakota may become the first state to eliminate personalized license plates.

Legislation offered by the state Department of Revenue and Regulation would repeal all references to vanity plates.

Debra Hillmer, state Division of Motor Vehicles director, said yesterday that it has become too difficult to keep track of all the terms that motorists want to put on their plates, which cost $25 a year for cars and $20 for motorcycles.

Hillmer said her counterparts in other states also are reviewing the issue of personalized plates because of the hassles they've created.

"Every state is dealing with this same thing because people are becoming so vulgar, and there's so many different connotations for things anymore," she said.

"Plates were never designed to give people free expression, whether it be political or sexual or whatever," Hillmer said.

It has become impossible to decipher and keep up with the shorthand motorists want to display on their plates, and people can be offended by their own interpretations of even seemingly innocuous combinations of letters and numbers, she said.

South Dakota, with a population of about 800,000 people, has just 12,589 personalized license plates. But there are 9.3 million of them in the U.S., and the thought of a repeal cascading through other states could drive many of those motorists straight to their Capitols to protest.

Learning about the repeal effort, Stefan Lonce — author of the upcoming book LCNS2ROM-License to Roam: Vanity Plates and the Stories They Tell — said he sympathizes with Hillmer and her cohorts in other states.

"It isn't easy being the DMV official who has to decide which personalized license-plate messages are permissible and which should be prohibited," Lonce said.

While saying vanity plates should be celebrated, he conceded that "every vanity plate could potentially offend someone."

Lonce is the editor of The Montauk Sun, a monthly newspaper distributed on the east end of Long Island, New York.

South Dakota's lawmaking session begins today, and Hillmer knows the bill to repeal personalized plates will bring stiff opposition.

Despite the popularity of the personal messages, license plates were developed more than a century ago to identify the plate to the vehicle for law enforcement purposes, Hillmer said. Motorists who want to send messages should use bumper stickers, she said.

SB20, the bill to repeal personalized plates in South Dakota, was spurred by a flap last year over a plate critical of President George W. Bush. The plate — MPEACHW — brought a complaint to the Motor Vehicles Division, which told Heather Morijah of Rapid City that she had to turn it in because it slipped past a routine screening for messages that are offensive to good taste and decency.

After a legal review, however, the state reversed course and said Morijah could keep the plates. She later moved to Pennsylvania.

Controversies over vanity plates have developed in many states.

Just last year:

  • An Oregon family by the last name of Udink was ordered to turn in the plates on three vehicles — UDINK1, UDINK2 and UDINK3 — because the state said the family's Dutch name can be interpreted to be offensive.
  • A judge in Vermont told a man he could not have a religious reference on his license plates. "JN36TN" was shorthand for John 3:16, a Bible passage that reads: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
  • Nevada officials told Stacy Moore of North Las Vegas, Nev., that she could not keep XSTACY on her plates because another motorist complained that it referred to the designer drug Ecstasy. Moore, who'd had the plates for 20 years, said she'd never used drugs and XSTACY was merely a play on her name because someone else already had the STACY plates.

  • Update
    S.D. Senate puts brakes on effort to eliminate vanity plates
    DMV chief argues that state is at risk for free-speech lawsuits from people who are denied personalized tags. 01.16.08

    Related

    Woman resists DMV's call to return anti-Bush license plate

    South Dakota official says that although only one person complained about 'MPEACHW' message, that's all it takes to recall a set of vanity plates. 05.07.07

    Vt. man blocked again in quest for 'JN36TN' vanity plate
    'The DMV has the right to prohibit religious messages on license plates provided it does not discriminate based on the particular message or viewpoint,' federal magistrate judge finds. 08.16.07

    Ore. DMV deems UDINK vanity plates offensive
    Panel's order to turn over license plates surprises Mike Udink, who notes his last name is common in The Netherlands. 09.25.07

    Car talk: The hour may be late for the vanity PL8
    By Gene Policinski Some states growing impatient with navigating pitfalls involving personalized license plates. 01.13.08

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