By Charles D. Wilson
INDIANAPOLIS — A fuss over a police officer's vanity plate has blown up into a constitutional debate that could lead to the Indiana General Assembly deciding whether to rewrite the law or stop selling personalized license plates altogether.
The Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles filed a notice of appeal Monday, asking the state Supreme Court to overrule a local judge who said the agency violated the officer's freedom of speech when it revoked his license plate that read "0INK."
Drivers haven't been able to buy vanity plates in Indiana since July 2013, when Greenfield Police Officer Rodney Vawter sued the BMV, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana. The agency's website offers guidance on how to apply for personalized license plates but warns that it is not currently accepting applications.
BMV Commissioner Donald M. Snemis told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview that if the Indiana Supreme Court agrees to take up the issue, it may direct lawmakers to rewrite the law. This could lead to the removal of the right to have vanity plates for all Indiana drivers.
"At that point, the Legislature is going to have to have a discussion about whether we want to have a personalized license plate system," Snemis said.
BMV spokesman Josh Gillespie said Monday that the appeal would be filed by the end of the day.
Vawter, who had his license plate for three years, won his lawsuit in May in a Marion County court. He did not return phone messages or emails seeking comment.
In his June ruling, Judge James Osborn also took on the BMV, saying it has no formal regulations in place for evaluating the content of vanity plates and ordering it to create standards that meet constitutional requirements within six months.
Osborn ruled that the BMV violated some vanity plate applicants' free speech rights by turning down some requests while allowing others. The BMV cited a state statute that allowed it to refuse to issue a plate when officials deem it carries "a connotation offensive to good taste and decency" or that "would be misleading."
The judge found the agency's use of its own standards was inconsistent and biased. For example, the agency revoked an "UNHOLY" vanity plate but allowed vanity plates such as "B HOLY" and "HOLYONE." The BMV also rejected the vanity plate "HATER" but accepted "HATE" and "HATERS." And while revoking Vawter's "0INK" plate, it allowed plates reading "OINKS" or "OINKER."
Osborn ordered the agency to restore the program under strict guidelines until it could write new rules that don't violate freedom of speech.
The BMV argues that the ruling rewrote the rules and would force it to allow offensive plates that might insult ethnic groups. But the ACLU contends in legal documents that the BMV is still allowed to deny plates that are defamatory, vulgar or could incite violence.
Getting rid of personalized license plates might not mean much in monetary terms, as vanity plate sales accounted for only 2.8 percent of the $103 million sent to license branches across the state in 2013, according to BMV figures obtained by the AP.
But, politically, it could have an impact.
"The Legislature is free — of course — to drop the personalized license plate program. However, I believe every state has one and it is extremely popular," ACLU Legal Director Ken Falk said in an email.
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Copyright 2014 The Associated Press