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Vanity plate rules seek balance

State House Bureau

July 14. 2014 8:02PM

CONCORD — State officials have begun processing about 2,000 backlogged vanity license plate requests after suspending applications two months ago following a state Supreme Court ruling.

The Division of Motor Vehicles adopted temporary rules Monday that allow the processing of new requests for vanity plates, which usually number 300 to 400 a month.

The applications were suspended after the court ruled in May that the division’s rejection of David Montenegro’s vanity license plate request for “COPSLIE” was unconstitutional and violated his right to free speech.

The court said the state regulation was unconstitutionally vague because it is “so loosely constrained” that it “authorizes or even encourages arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.” The court sent the case back to Strafford County Superior Court.

Montenegro, a Rochester resident who has legally changed his name to ‘human’, took the division to court after it ruled his plate request was insulting.

After the ruling, the division suspended processing new applications until a more specific interim rule could be adopted. The Department of Safety adopted the rule Monday.

The original rule prohibited vanity plates that “a reasonable person would find offensive to good taste,” but did not define good taste.

The new temporary rule is more specific outlawing vanity plates with references to sexual acts or functions, intimate body parts or genitals, profanity or obscenity, violence and gangs, illegal activity, or drugs or other intoxicants.

Also prohibited are racial, ethnic, religious, gender or sexual orientation hatred or bigotry and statements about any governmental entity that is not true.

Under the new rule, the motor vehicle director may recall or refuse to renew any existing vanity plate that violates the new rule.

The person can ask the director for specific reasons for recalling or refusing to renew the plate, but the director’s decision is final.

“We can begin sending application approvals again now that the interim rule is in place,” state Division of Motor Vehicles Director Richard Bailey said. “We’ve seen a small increase in the number of applications recently and are pleased to have the revised process so we can send out approvals.”

When applicants are approved, the person will have to take the approval letter and current license plates to their local DMV substation to obtain a new vanity registration, Bailey said.

Currently, there are about 1.5 million automobiles registered in New Hampshire including the 162,000 automobiles with vanity plates.

Anyone can apply for a vanity plate in the Granite State, but has to pay an additional $40 a year. Vanity plates generate about $6.6 million for the state in annual revenue.

The division hopes to have the backlogged requests cleared within two months.

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