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'0INK' vanity plate fight could go to Legislature

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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 said it would file 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.

Vawter, who had his license plate for three years, won his lawsuit last month in Marion County Court. He did not return phone messages or emails seeking comment.

In his 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 said the agency was inconsistent when approving plates based on content. For example, the agency revoked an "UNHOLY" vanity plate but allowed vanity plates such as "B HOLY" and "HOLYONE."

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 of Indiana Legal Director Ken Falk said in an email.

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  1. From his recent appearance on WRTV to this story here, Frank is everywhere. Couldn't happen to a nicer guy, although he should stop using Eric Schnauffer for his 7th Circuit briefs. They're not THAT hard.

  2. They learn our language prior to coming here. My grandparents who came over on the boat, had to learn English and become familiarize with Americas customs and culture. They are in our land now, speak ENGLISH!!

  3. @ Rebecca D Fell, I am very sorry for your loss. I think it gives the family solace and a bit of closure to go to a road side memorial. Those that oppose them probably did not experience the loss of a child or a loved one.

  4. If it were your child that died maybe you'd be more understanding. Most of us don't have graves to visit. My son was killed on a state road and I will be putting up a memorial where he died. It gives us a sense of peace to be at the location he took his last breath. Some people should be more understanding of that.

  5. Can we please take notice of the connection between the declining state of families across the United States and the RISE OF CPS INVOLVEMENT??? They call themselves "advocates" for "children's rights", however, statistics show those children whom are taken from, even NEGLIGENT homes are LESS likely to become successful, independent adults!!! Not to mention the undeniable lack of respect and lack of responsibility of the children being raised today vs the way we were raised 20 years ago, when families still existed. I was born in 1981 and I didn't even ever hear the term "CPS", in fact, I didn't even know they existed until about ten years ago... Now our children have disagreements between friends and they actually THREATEN EACH OTHER WITH, "I'll call CPS" or "I'll have [my parent] (usually singular) call CPS"!!!! And the truth is, no parent is perfect and we all have flaws and make mistakes, but it is RIGHTFULLY OURS - BY THE CONSTITUTION OF THIS GREAT NATION - to be imperfect. Let's take a good look at what kind of parenting those that are stealing our children are doing, what kind of adults are they producing? WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENS TO THE CHILDREN THAT HAVE BEEN RIPPED FROM THEIR FAMILY AND THAT CHILD'S SUCCESS - or otherwise - AS AN ADULT.....

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