Future of Indiana vanity license plates in question

(WISH Photo, file)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – The state of Michigan settled a year-old lawsuit Wednesday by agreeing not to prohibit potentially offensive vanity license plates. Some believe the ruling could influence a similar lawsuit now pending before the Indiana Supreme Court.

The ruling, issued in federal court in Grand Rapids, found Michigan’s law banning personal license plates that are deemed to be “offensive to good taste and decency” is unconstitutional because it violates First Amendment rights to free speech.

It came through “consent agreement” between the state and the American Civil Liberties Union, and specifies that Michigan can no longer enforce a section of its law prohibiting vanity plates that might be seen as indecent or “in bad taste.”

Michigan’s Secretary of State told CBS Detroit that the agency has agreed to stop enforcing a law that allows it to reject plates that could be “offensive to good taste and decency.”

In Indiana, both the ACLU and Bureau of Motor Vehicles agreed Michigan’s law will not likely exert direct influence over the Indiana Supreme Court’s decisions.

“I can’t speak to how a federal case would impact a state case,” said BMV Deputy Commissioner of Communications Josh Gillespie. “Those are two different courts and it would appear that the lawyers involved in the Michigan case took a different route than the ones here.”

But, there is no denying that Indiana’s current law has similar language to Michigan’s.

The legal battle surrounding Indiana’s program has been ongoing since July 2013 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. Judge James Osborn’s May ruling included a series of contradictory plate denials uncovered last year by I-Team 8, which were used as evidence in the case.

The ruling also found that the BMV commissioner does not have the legal authority to suspend the program.

The judge ordered the BMV to reinstate it immediately under a new set of rules and inform all eligible drivers that they could again apply for new vanity plates. But, the program has not resumed as ordered, after the BMV said the ruling would require the state “to issue personalized plates that contain messages offensive to one’s race, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.”

Instead, the program has remained under suspension as the BMV appealed Osborn’s ruling to the state Supreme Court. The agency asked the high court not to enforce the ruling while the appeal is pending.

The ACLU objected to that request in July, asking that Osborn’s ruling be enforced immediately.

Both requests are pending before the Supreme Court. No dates have been set for the matter to be heard.

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