State officials are changing their system for reviewing personalized license plates after multiple complaints about a plate that reads “DEPORTM” were quashed on their way up the chain of command, a Utah official told legislators on Wednesday.
“If someone in that decision ladder decides that it’s not offensive, then it doesn’t matter how many times a citizen complains — it just hits that point,” said Scott Smith, executive director of the Utah Tax Commission, which oversees the Division of Motor Vehicles. “That was a weakness in our system.”
That's what happened to multiple complaints lodged with the DMV since the plate was approved in 2015, Smith told the Utah Administrative Rules Review Committee.
But one person who complained told The Salt Lake Tribune that a supervisor in the department told her in 2018 the plate would be recalled. Instead, a photo of the plate circulated on social media last week, catching the attention of state lawmakers.
“I was shocked because I was on the phone with the DMV, and they told me that it was going to be recalled — and apparently it never was,” said Marge Pett, a Salt Lake City resident who first complained about the plate in October 2017, according to an email exchange she provided to The Tribune.
The email exchange continued for months as Pett asked for updates.
"I just want to be certain that the offensive license plate is successfully recalled," Pett wrote. In her initial complaint she wrote that she had spotted the plate on a car on 700 East, near the University of Utah, where a number of international students live. Pett also was concerned the plate could provoke violence against the driver, she wrote.
A DMV supervisor ultimately told Pett the plate would be recalled, she said — but it's not clear whether the division ever notified the car's owner of the complaints.
Two other people who complained have told The Tribune that they first contacted the DMV in 2016 about the “DEPORTM” plate and were asked whether they’d be willing to testify in the event of an appeal. They said they agreed, and then heard nothing more about it. Both said they assumed the plate had been recalled without appeal.
A commission spokesperson has said officials were “surprised” last week to see the controversy on social media and were unaware of previous complaints because of personnel changes in the DMV since then.
Yet another person who complained, Mary Lou Beckwith, told The Tribune she called the DMV about the plate after seeing it in Tooele just six to eight weeks ago. An employee assured Beckwith the division would make note of her complaint and “send it upstairs,” she said.
Smith on Wednesday said the agency will begin entering all complaints into a shared system so that "anyone in the hierarchy of decision-making" can see them.
Moreover, multiple complaints about a particular plate will trigger a review by the Utah Attorney General's Office, Smith told the Utah Administrative Rules Review Committee.
The Utah Tax Commission last week placed the “DEPORTM” plate under review. Critics wondered how the message passed muster with the DMV when the agency has rules against plates that “express contempt, ridicule, or superiority of a race, religion, deity, ethnic heritage, gender, or political affiliation.”
The agency also forbids 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.
But consistent enforcement of these standards can be challenging, Monte Roberts, the state's DMV director, told lawmakers Wednesday. Roberts said the agency's 11-person miscellaneous services unit reviews about 450 personalized plate requests each month, among their other responsibilities.
In 2019, the office rejected about 900 applications — about half of them because they conflicted with other existing license plates. Officials denied about 30 of the proposed plates on public welfare grounds, about 100 because they contained sexual references and about 130 because they were vulgar, derogatory, profane or obscene, Roberts said.
Sometimes, applicants try to sneak illicit messages through by writing them backward or in a language other than English, he added. Over the past five years, the state has denied plates such as “MURDA,” “PECKER1,” “4TWENTY” and “DA^NUTZ.”
“In today’s day and age, you never know what somebody’s going to get offended at, to be honest,” said Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Salem, who chairs the administrative rules review committee.
Lawmakers on the committee also expressed an interest in a proposal to enable DMV officials to consider "legislative positions" when reviewing vanity plate requests — including a 2011 resolution designating the Browning M1911 semiautomatic pistol as the state firearm.
The DMV currently nixes any weapon references on vanity plates, Smith said, but two local gun advocates are currently challenging this policy.
Clark Aposhian and Bill Pedersen of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, both of whom attended Wednesday's meeting, said they're appealing the agency's denial of vanity plates referencing the M1911.
“The designation was meant as a unifying designation, something that Utahns should be proud of and was never intended to be a contentious one,” Aposhian said in an interview.
Aposhian and Pedersen said the tax commission is scheduled to hear their appeals in coming weeks.