A contested Utah license plate that reads “DEPORTM” has remained in use despite at least three previous complaints to state officials in recent years, according to those who objected.
The Utah Tax Commission, which oversees the state Division of Motor Vehicles, last week placed the vanity plate under review after an image of the plate circulated on social media, catching the attention of some state lawmakers.
State officials have said they were “surprised” the plate was approved and were unaware of the previous complaints because of personnel changes since the first objections were filed in 2016.
But a Stansbury Park woman on Tuesday told The Salt Lake Tribune she complained just a few weeks ago, after spotting the license plate in Tooele. And a commission spokeswoman confirmed the employee who corresponded in 2016 with one of the people who complained remains in the same role at the DMV today.
Mary Lou Beckwith said she was driving near Walmart in Tooele when she noticed the license plate on a red Honda Pilot in November or December.
“I was horrified,” Beckwith said. “It was terrible. We've got so much stuff going on about immigration right now. I was shaking when I got home.”
Beckwith said she called the DMV to complain about the plate. “The lady I talked to, she was very concerned,” Beckwith said. “She said, ‘Oh, yes. I can’t do anything about it, but I can send it upstairs.’
“I'm kind of disappointed they didn't refer my report because I just, you know — I was dumbfounded.”
It was not the first time the plate was called into question.
At least two drivers made complaints to the DMV in fall 2016, according to the people who reported the plate. Jade Letourneau noticed the license plate while she was stuck in traffic in October 2016 and sent a message to the division, alerting it to what she argued was a violation of state rules forbidding vanity plates that "express contempt, ridicule or superiority of a race, religion, deity, ethnic heritage, gender, or political affiliation.”
"I see this as clear contempt," she wrote in an email with a photo of the plate attached.
DMV staffers replied that they received her request to recall the plate. But the manager of the division’s unit over vanity plates wrote that the owner would have a chance to appeal a recall.
"In the event that this was to happen, the DMV would subpoena you to testify to your objections to the plate. The first level of appeal would be at the Tax Commission and could possibly continue to District Court and ultimately the Utah Supreme Court," the reply stated.
Letourneau responded that she would be willing to testify, according to emails she provided to The Tribune. Then, she said, “nothing happened.”
A month later, Linda Luchetti was at a red light in Salt Lake City when she noticed the “DEPORTM” license plate, surrounded by anti-Obama bumper stickers, she said. It was the week after the 2016 election, when immigrants reported being increasingly harassed and threatened. Utah teachers were struggling to manage students’ fears of deportation, and Muslim leaders in the state described “waking up to broken hearts and crying eyes” due to Trump’s promise to restrict immigration from majority-Muslim countries.
“I thought, ‘Does that plate say what I think it says?’” Luchetti said. She snapped a photo of the plate and forwarded it to her husband, David Cleveland, who filed a complaint with the DMV and posted the image to Instagram.
Officials asked them if they would be willing to testify to their objections. Like Latourneau, Luchetti and Cleveland agreed.
"A state agency represents everyone in the state," Cleveland said. "That's the reason we filed a complaint. It's all well and good to put up a bumper sticker, but when it's a state entity, it represents everyone, all the taxpayers. That's why they have guidelines ... when people personalize their license plates."
The couple said they received no further word about their complaint. “We wrongly assumed they recalled the offensive license plate," Luchetti said, “but it looks like they did not.”
When images of the plate surfaced again last week on social media, DMV officials confirmed the vanity plate was requested in 2015, but said they “don’t know why it was approved.” The commission is reviewing whether the license plate complies with state rules for vanity plates.
Tammy Kikuchi, spokeswoman for the Utah Tax Commission, had said officials were “surprised” to learn of the license plate, which prompted Beckwith, Letourneau, and Luchetti and Cleveland to relay their complaints to The Tribune.
Kikuchi said the DMV’s present staff did not know of previous complaints until Monday morning. “Yes, we did receive complaints before," Kikuchi said, “but none of those people who are in charge now were in charge then, so we were unaware.”
But Letourneau’s emails show she corresponded with the DMV’s miscellaneous services manager — a position filled by the same person today, Kikuchi confirmed.
When asked why those earlier complaints were not addressed, or why the commission was unaware of Beckwith’s more recent report, Kikuchi said she could not discuss any of the previous complaints because they are part of an ongoing review.
“By statute," Kikuchi added, “they are confidential.”
In addition to the rule forbidding vanity plates that show contempt, ridicule or superiority of certain groups, the DMV also forbids license plates that
- Are vulgar, derogatory, profane or obscene.
- Make reference to drugs or drug paraphernalia.
- Make reference to sexual acts, genitalia or bodily functions.
- Express or suggest endangerment to the public welfare.
In the past five years, the state has rejected applications for hundreds of vanity plates, such as “HIGHBAL,” “GO4WINE,” and “FCANCER,” according to a list of more than 1,500 denied plates. In some cases — like “BASCAMP,” “^SUDOKU,” and “W1NGMAN” — it isn’t clear what provision the requests violate.
The state previously denied license plates for “COFFEE” and “CHEESE.” In 2007, officials forced a driver to remove a plate that read “MERLOT,” even though it had been on the vehicle for a decade. In that case, the commission sided with an anonymous complainant — a contrast to the recent complainants who said they were asked to commit to court appearances when they raised objections.
In 2005, the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah successfully helped a Park City woman appeal the state’s denial of license plates that read “GAYSROK” (“gays are OK”) and “GAYRYTS.” An administrative law judge rejected state officials’ arguments that the plates were “offensive to good taste and decency, relate to sexual functions and express superiority of a gender.”