(USA Today) The Bureau of Motor Vehicles was wrong when it refused to renew Greenfield, Ind., police officer Rodney Vawter's vanity license plate that read "0INK," a judge ruled Wednesday.
A Marion County judge issued a summary judgment in favor of Vawter and other Hoosier motorists who were denied what the BMV deemed to be "objectionable" or "derogatory" messages on personal plates.
Marion Superior Court Judge James Osborn found that the standards the BMV used to assess the appropriateness of personalized license plates violated the First Amendment and Indiana law and ordered that they cease being used. Osborn also found the state agency had not properly adopted the rules it used in making such decisions.
The BMV suspended its personal license plate program in July, about two months after Vawter's lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana.
The ruling noted apparent inconsistencies in what the BMV would allow and what the agency would deny. Some examples: "SXY" was denied, but "BIGGSXY" was approved. "FOX*LIES" was denied, but "FOX NEWS" was approved. "BIBLE*H8R" was denied, but "BIBLE4ME" was approved.
The court order said the BMV's former general counsel was "unable to explain the seeming inconsistencies in the approvals and denies" of requests.
"The First Amendment prevents arbitrary decision making when it comes to expression," ACLU of Indiana Legal Director Kenneth Falk said in a statement. "The court properly recognized that the BMV does not have in place adequate, lawful and constitutional standards to assess personalized license plates."
For three years, Vawter had a license plate that read "0INK" — with a zero in place of the letter O — but when he tried to renew it in March 2013, it was rejected.
The lawsuit says Vawter considers the plate's verbal pig snort "an ironic statement of pride in his profession."
"Corporal Vawter selected the phrase '0INK' for his license plate because, as a police officer who has been called 'pig' by arrestees, he thought it was both humorous and also a label that he wears with some degree of pride," the lawsuit states.
The BMV told Vawter the plate was inappropriate and cited a state statute that allows the BMV to refuse to issue a plate that officials believe carries "a connotation offensive to good taste and decency" or "would be misleading."
In his order, Judge Osborn ordered the BMV to:
•Immediately reinstate the personalized license plate program.
•Allow Vawter to obtain the "0INK" pate if he reapplies and not deny another plaintiff, Jay Voigt, a plate that says "UNHOLY."
•Properly establish rules for the review of a plate request.
•Inform customers who had a request denied or revoked of the new ruling and how to reapply.
The judge ordered the BMV to pay attorney fees for the plaintiffs.
The ruling is the latest in a series of legal complications for the BMV. In 2013, the BMV had to agree to repay Hoosiers after overcharging for driver's licenses. The agency also agreed to restore the specialty plate for the Indiana Youth Group, which supports gay, bisexual, transgender and sexually questioning youth.
Messages left with the BMV seeking comment were not immediately returned.
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