BMV asks judge to reconsider restart of vanity plate program

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) —Hoosier drivers with plans to apply for new vanity license plates are facing yet another stop sign. Indiana’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles has asked a judge to reconsider an order to immediately reinstate the program.

The filing likely means at least 6 more weeks of waiting for drivers eager for a new plate. It follows a court ruling in May, based in part on a series of contradictory plate denials uncovered last year by I-Team 8.

Those decisions violated the First Amendment, Marion County Superior Court Judge James Osborn 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. Osborn’s May ruling found that the BMV Commissioner does not have the legal authority to suspend the program.

But, the program has remained under suspension while the BMV crafted its response. That response came on the 30th day—the last day allowed under statute—in the form of a “motion to correct errors.”

“The state has basically filed a motion for the court to reconsider its decision, and objecting to what the court did,” said American Civil Liberties Union Legal Director Ken Falk, who is representing Vawter and other Hoosier drivers in the lawsuit. “The state has a perfect right to do that, and a perfect right to appeal. But, I am certainly disappointed. I would have hoped that the judge’s decision was clear enough that the state would have recognized, as the judge did, that what the state has been doing is both illegal and unconstitutional.”

In May, Osborn ordered the BMV to “immediately reinstate the PLP program” and that the agency 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.”

“What the BMV has been doing is operating without appropriate promulgated standards in ways that are completely irrational. And, I would have hoped that the BMV would have recognized that, and fixed the problem, rather than trying to delay what I hope is the inevitable,” Falk said.

The BMV has not complied with Osborn’s order, and the program remains suspended. Falk said he agreed not to ask the court to force resumption while the state was crafting its appeal.

BMV Commissioner Don Snemis declined I-Team 8’s request for an on-camera interview through an agency spokesperson Monday, but issued a statement saying the ruling “would require the BMV to issue personalized plates that contain messages offensive to one’s race, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.”

“I don’t think that’s accurate,” replied Falk. “I think the court took great pains in structuring a remedy that would preserve some rules while the state promulgated.”

Under Osborn’s ruling, the BMV was given six months to promulgate—make it decision making standards public.

“One of the things the state is saying here is that we don’t have enough time to promulgate new regulations. I don’t think that’s true either. And, I don’t think the state is operating from the strongest position when they waited 30 days [to file a motion to correct errors], when they could have been promulgating right away. I don’t think the state can wait and now say–oh my gosh, we can’t possibly do this! I think the state can, and has to do it.”

Falk said the ACLU will officially object to the BMV’s within the required 15 days. After that, the judge would have 30 days to rule on the motion. If no such ruling is made, it would be automatically denied.

“If the motion to correct errors is denied, we are going insist that the BMV start complying with the requirements the court set out,” Falk said. “The BMV could try to seek a stay, and we could argue that. But, at this point, we’re basically in a holding pattern where we have a statute that’s been declared unconstitutional and policies declared invalid. And, both are still being used.”

The full statement by BMV Commissioner Don Snemis is below:

“We respectfully disagree with this holding, and will appeal that ruling at the appropriate time. However, the issue of immediate concern is the portion of the court’s order requiring the BMV to reinstate the program, despite the conclusion that it is unconstitutional, under a new regulatory scheme created by the court. The court’s new rules would require the BMV to issue personalized plates that contain messages offensive to one’s race, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. We disagree that the statute is unconstitutional, but if that is the ultimate finding of the courts, then the legislature would be the proper avenue to create a new personalized license plate system, not the judiciary.”

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