How the DMV keeps smutty license plates off our roads

Some California Department of Motor Vehicles workers have to keep their minds in the gutter all day long.

Their job is to catch vanity license plate requests that don’t meet the state’s rules of decency. Sexual suggestions, hints of vulgarity or possible gang references earn a “no.” Only plates that are pure win a “yes” from the DMV reviewers – and they don’t take risks.

In the second half of 2016, the DMV review staff denied more than 9,000 applications for personalized plates. Some were obvious violations of state law. Others were arguable.

The DMV shot down a request for a plate that read “OSX4EVA,” saying it could mean “Oh, sex forever.” The applicant said he was a systems administrator and a big fan of Apple’s OS X operating system.

“It is a tribute to the name of the software,” the unnamed applicant wrote, according to lists of thousands of license plate requests obtained by The Sacramento Bee under the state’s Public Records Act.

The DMV turned down “3FLYNHI” for its possible drug reference and “VADER 18” for a suspected nod to Adolf Hitler, whose initials are the first and eighth letters of the alphabet.

On the other hand, a driver who wanted a license plate that said “TPLS4ME” won approval because he owned a convertible.

“Customers’ amount of creativity is phenomenal,” said DMV spokesman Artemio Armenta. “There are times the reviewers have to go talk to other employees with diverse experience or dialects to interpret some of the phrases on the requests.”

DMV officials denied multiple requests from Bee reporters to speak to any of the employees who decide what’s lawful on a license plate. Armando Botello, the DMV’s deputy director of communications, said, “Their classification doesn’t allow them to talk to the media.” Armenta said they were all too busy.

Busy, they may be. Four DMV employees handle 20,000 personalized license plate requests each month, or about 1,000 per business day, officials said. (The number soared from 7,000 to 20,000 per month after the state started accepting requests for retro-looking 1960s license plates in 2015.)

Motorists pay an extra $48 to $98 for vanity plates.

Some applicants follow department guidelines prohibiting lewd, obscene or hateful language. But many motorists, intentionally or not, ask for phrases that contain gang symbols, sexual connotations or racist letter and number combinations. They may try to disguise their intentions or offer explanations that raise reviewers’ eyebrows.

One motorist asked for a license plate that said “DWARVES,” purportedly in honor of an aunt named D. Warves. Quite a few try to work in the number 69, which is generally considered an unacceptable sexual reference unless the plate is for a vehicle from 1969. Other people spell bad words backward, hoping they’ll slip by.

All the plate requests that pour into the DMV get a first-round review. The ones deemed questionable get flagged for additional scrutiny.

When reviewers are unable to interpret a requested configuration, such as “BAI LOL,” eight multilingual reviewers form a committee to discuss if a request is appropriate. The request for the phrase was later turned down because “BAI” means pervert in Vietnamese.

The DMV’s website clearly states the seven major reasons the department will refuse an offensive plate configuration, but it hasn’t stopped thousands of people from trying.

“Our customers receive clear explanation of why their requests were denied, and we usually don’t receive further complaints,” Armenta said. The department pays back the application fee to rejected applicants.

Why do people do it?

Cynthia Pickett, a psychology professor at UC Davis, said people’s desire for distinctiveness drives their urge to express themselves through custom plates, including with hostile or sexual messages.

“People feeling secure about themselves wouldn’t necessarily need to get personalized license plates. Humans want themselves verified and identified by others,” Pickett said. “While hostile signs can get you targeted, desire for distinctiveness can be so high that social impression doesn’t matter anymore.”

Some motorists are frustrated by the DMV’s denials and question whether the state is restricting their freedom of speech. But according to David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, an individual’s freedom of speech does not extend to license plates because they belong to the government.

“A license plate is state property and speaks for the state government,” Snyder said. “The state has right to regulate what can be written on the license plates as long as the regulations it has are reasonable and uniformly applied.”

Personalized plates may seem like a means of expression to many motorists, but they are primarily meant for law enforcement officers to identify vehicles in cases of crime and to safeguard drivers on the road, said First Amendment lawyer Harmeet Dhillon. Dhillon said motorists can use bumper stickers and other decorations to express themselves if they feel it’s so important.

“I’m a big First Amendment proponent, but regulating license plates does not restrict anyone’s free speech,” Dhillon said. “The state DMV’s regulations may be slightly archaic, but they are not that difficult to comply with.”

Walter Ko: 916-321-1436, @juntaeko

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