Judge: BMV vanity plate decisions unconstitutional

(WISH Photo, file)
(WISH Photo, file)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – Indiana’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles violated the First Amendment when issuing denials of some personal license plate requests, a Marion County Judge ruled late Wednesday. It remains unclear what affect the ruling might have on resumption of the suspended vanity plate program.

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.

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, according to court filings obtained by I-Team 8. Copies of the ruling were not immediately available.

The motion for summary judgment comes 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 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. He also argued the BMV’s commissioner does not have the legal authority to suspend the program, and asked the judge to order the program to resume under new, constitutional guidelines within 30 days.

Falk said he had not received a copy of the ruling by late Wednesday, and remained uncertain if Osborn would order the program to resume.

A BMV spokesman said the agency also had not received a copy of the ruling Wednesday, and doesn’t plan to comment on its findings or potential resumption of the PLP program until it has been fully reviewed.

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