GARDEN CITY, N.Y. Retired police officer Arno Herwerth wanted his license plates to send a political message: "GETOSAMA."
He considers his vanity plates patriotic a concise call for the capture or death of the mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But the state Department of Motor Vehicles saw the sentiment as offensive and asked Herwerth to send the plates back.
So Herwerth is seeking a court order to force the DMV to drop its demand that he return the vanity license plates.
Herwerth, a 21-year veteran of the New York Police Department, said he requested the plates earlier this fall. He said he was surprised to hear, after receiving the plates, that the DMV wanted them back.
In a Nov. 15 letter to Herwerth, the agency cited a regulation prohibiting plates that could be considered "obscene, lewd, lascivious, derogatory to a particular ethnic group or patently offensive." It returned his previous generic license plates and asked that he send the "GETOSAMA" plates, which were issued Nov. 2, back to its Albany headquarters.
Herwerth, 42, said in a phone interview that it was important to him that the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks be remembered.
"I got the plates because of 9/11," he said. "I want to keep the message alive that this man needs to be killed or captured. It's been a long time, but we haven't forgotten."
Herwerth's attorney, Vincent Amicizia, said he would seek a temporary restraining order in U.S. District Court that would prevent the DMV from revoking the "GETOSAMA" plates. He maintains the plates are patriotic because the sentiment supports the U.S. war on terrorism.
"That's the oddity of this case," Amicizia said. "I've never heard of a First Amendment case that seeks to suppress patriotic speech."
Tara Keenan-Thomson, executive director of the Nassau County chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, says she is aware that states have denied plates based on offensive messages, but she is not sure why the "GETOSAMA" plates were interpreted negatively by state officials.
"What is unique is that this message does reflect the policies of the present administration," she said. "When 'offensive' is applied to political views, it encroaches on free speech."
State DMV spokesman Ken Brown said the plates "didn't meet DMV regulation standards, and issuing them would be inappropriate." He declined further comment.