Judge: BMV must immediately resume vanity plate program

(WISH Photo, file)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – Indiana’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles must immediately resume its personal license plate program, a Marion County Judge ruled late Wednesday. The decision is based in part on a series of contradictory plate denials uncovered last year by I-Team 8.

Those decisions violated the First Amendment, the judge ruled.

The legal battle surrounding the program has been ongoing since July when former BMV Commissioner Scott Waddell suspended the state’s personal license plate (PLP) program following a lawsuit filed by Greenfield Police Corporal Rodney Vawter.

Vawter claimed the agency’s decision to revoke his personalized plate, which reads “0INK” next to a Fraternal Order of Police logo, was unconstitutional. Vawter claimed it was speech he found “humorous.”

“I’ve been called a pig to my face. A person has that freedom of speech. I have to accept that as an officer. I don’t treat them any different just because they call me a pig. They find it humorous. But I thought it’d be humorous [to put it on my plate],” Vatwer told I-Team 8.

During an interview Thursday, Vawter said he was glad the judge ruled in his favor and hoped that the ruling would force the state to action.

“I hope it’s over, but the attorney said the BMV has 30 days to appeal it,” Vawter said. “If anything I hope that it helps the program with personalized license plates when they get them reinstated to make a little easier format on what’s good and what’s bad on the plates.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit on Vawter’s behalf, filed a motion in November requesting a summary judgment, or immediate ruling in the case. The motion contended that “there are no contested issues of fact,” and that Vawter and others in the class action lawsuit are entitled to “appropriate injunctive and declaratory relief.”

Judge James Osborn granted that order late Wednesday, ruling that the BMV’s commissioner does not have the legal authority to suspend the program, according to court filings obtained by I-Team 8.

In the ruling, Osborn orders the BMV to “immediately reinstate the PLP program” and voids all license plate rejections made by utilizing the BMV’s current policy. The BMV must immediately inform all eligible drivers that they may again apply for new vanity plates. Osborn also called the BMV’s policies which govern what plates were approved or denied “vague and overboard.”

His ruling added that the policies created a “subjective standard” that gave the state discretion as which plates would be accepted or rejected. That – Osborn ruled – was a clear violation of the First Amendment.

As part of the settlement, the BMV must establish new, constitutional guidelines for plate approvals and denials within the next six months and provide those guidelines to the public, Osborn ruled.

The ruling also prohibits the agency from revoking Vawter’s “0INK” plate in the future.

The motion for summary judgment came in the wake of an I-Team 8 investigation in October that found inconsistencies in how the BMV decides what personal license plate requests to approve and deny.

ACLU Attorney Ken Falk cited many of the examples uncovered by I-Team 8′s investigation in his motion and during a hearing before Judge Osborn last month, arguing that decisions were made arbitrarily by an appointed panel of BMV employees using a “rough guideline” of examples. The BMV admitted that plate approval requests “may depend on who is making the decision that day,” according to depositions cited in court.

Falk also told the judge that the BMV’s policy on how personal plates are approved and denied is not available to the public, as required by law.

A BMV spokesman said Thusday that the agency was “still reviewing the opinion and have not made a decision as to the next steps we will take.”

The judge’s ruling asserts that the PLP program should resume immediately. When asked if the BMV would appeal Judge Osborn’s ruling, spokesman Josh Gillespie said, “We’ll know more after a full review has been done.”

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