When the first complaint about the personalized “DEPORTM” Utah license plate was filed in 2016, the state employee who received it thought approving the vanity plate had been a mistake.

“Clearly I missed this one when approving the order," the employee wrote to a co-worker at the state Division of Motor Vehicles. "What was I thinking?”

But the “DEPORTM” plate stayed in use for more than three years after that, despite at least seven more complaints, according to documents obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through an open records request. And it wasn’t the only plate that prompted allegations of bigotry; drivers have taken to Utah roads with license plate messages such as “NEGROS” “J3WBRNR” and “FÜHRER,” while state officials rejected such license plates as “COFFEE” and “MERLOT.”

As Utah legislators consider new guidelines for vanity license plates, past complaints show inconsistencies in how the rules have been applied.

The Tribune obtained records of complaints made since 2014 to the Utah Tax Commission, which oversees the Division of Motor Vehicles, about vanity plates alleged to violate guidelines that forbid letter and number combinations that “may carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency or that may be misleading.”

Some of the challenged plates — like "EFINAMY" and "PUBES" — appear to have been immediately deemed out of bounds, according to staff replies to complainants and internal emails.

Other plates received multiple complaints. Two people reported the tag "J3WBRNR" on a BMW about two weeks apart in 2017, noting that it appears to convey the words "Jew burner."

“I think this is the second complaint on this plate,” a DMV staffer wrote in a September 2017 email to the Miscellaneous Services unit, which handles vanity plate requests and objections.

The “J3WBRNR” plate was one of 12 to be eventually recalled in response to complaints since 2014. It’s unclear whether action was taken before the second complaint was filed in that case.

The Tax Commission adopted new protocols for handling complaints after the “DEPORTM” plate attracted criticism on social media last month. Under the changes, multiple complaints about a given plate will trigger a review by the state attorney general’s office.

Previously, the DMV director was responsible for deciding whether to revoke a plate, said commission spokeswoman Tammy Kikuchi.

“In light of recent events, I am aware of the complaints” that were provided to The Tribune, said Monte Roberts, who has been director since 2017. However, it’s unclear whether all complaints made their way to Roberts, or to his predecessor, at the time they were filed.

Scott Smith, executive director of the Utah Tax Commission, has said that the “DEPORTM” plate survived multiple complaints because someone in the chain of command deemed it unobjectionable.

Since 2016, at least eight people submitted written complaints about the plate, arguing it ran afoul of rules banning vanity plates that express “contempt, ridicule or superiority of a race, religion, deity, ethnic heritage or political affiliation."

In replies and internal correspondence since 2016, DMV staff appeared to go back and forth on whether the plate was in-bounds.

After the DMV employee wrote that approving the "DEPORTM” plate was a mistake, a co-worker then advised the staffer to deal with complaints about the plate by sending “a standard answer that hopefully will appease them, then we will send out a letter of intent to revoke.”

"So what if you let a little plate slip by ... it's life! plus you're human. Humanoids make errors," the second employee wrote.

But later that month, DMV staffers shifted their tone on the “DEPORTM” plate. “I think we wait on this one and see if we get a second complaint,” an employee wrote. “It’s not specific to any group of people ... it could really mean anyone.”

A month after that, when another complainant pressed DMV staff as to whether the plate was within guidelines or whether it had been approved by mistake, an employee replied: " To answer your question, no this plate does not conform to the guidelines put forth by the Department of Motor Vehicles."

More complaints arrived after that, though the resolution of those objections isn’t documented in the records provided to The Tribune. Finally, after at least five complaints, one of the complainants revisited the issue in May 2018.

“It was determined that the plate issued falls under the guidelines allowed for personalized plates. DEPORTM does not refer to any specific race, ethnicity, etc.," an employee wrote. "At this time no further action is being taken.”

“What race or ethnic group do you think someone with the license plate ‘DEPORTM’ is referring to ... white Anglo Saxons??” the complainant replied. “Or, perhaps persons of color, Muslims, undocumented immigrants and unwelcomed others????”

In February 2019, yet another complaint appeared.

“We’ve received another complaint about the plate DEPORTM,” an employee wrote to another. “Is our stance still that 'M' does not refer to any specific race, ethnicity, etc.?”

The DMV did not provide any further reply to that complainant in response to The Tribune’s record request. Two more complaints were filed against the plate after that, in May and November, according to division records.

But the license plate was still in use last month, when a social media post about the plate attracted the attention of lawmakers. Despite the series of complaints, commission officials said they were “surprised” to learn of the plate and put it under review. The plate has been recalled.

A bill by state Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, would add “national origin” to the list of qualities a vanity plate may not disparage, and would codify the guidelines in state statute; presently they are administrative rules.

“That’s what we’re trying to do with the bill: Bring clarity to our current statute,” Escamilla said. “It’s not much different from what we’ve had. We’re just being more specific with some of the [guidelines].”

It’s unclear which employees have authorized such vanity plates as “DEPORTM,” “J3WBURNR” and “FÜHRER,” which apparently was in use as of May 2019 but was recalled at some point after multiple complaints in June. The records provided to The Tribune redacted the email addresses of state employees as well as those of the complainants.

In addition to a ban on vanity plates that disparage certain groups, state rules forbid 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.

When a plate is disputed, either at the time of the personalized request or due to later complaints, state rules say the DMV director and staff may turn to glossaries of slang — like the Urban Dictionary, Kikuchi said — as well as translations of the expression in foreign languages. State rules also urge the DMV to consult with law enforcement to establish whether a plate refers to illegal activity or gang terminology.

“The reality is, it’s a very difficult thing to do because what’s offensive to you might not be offensive to me,” Escamilla said. “... There may be generational questions related to some of this stuff, context related to certain languages, slang — the sky’s the limit. We’re just trying to say, look, we want good taste when it comes to license plates.”

She noted that courts have long established that states may regulate personalized license plates without infringing on free speech because license plates are not a “public forum." License plates, she said, "are considered government speech.”

UTAH’S RECALLED LICENSE PLATES

These are the vanity plates the Utah Division of Motor Vehicles has recalled after complaints in recent years, as well as the dates of the complaints.

• DEPORTM: Complaints filed October 2016 to January 2020.

• PUBES: Complaint filed October 2019.

• FÜHRER: Complaints filed June 2019.

• VFNCLO: Complaint filed January 2019, reporting that the plate abbreviates an Italian profanity.

• EFINAMY: Complaint filed November 2018.

• SUM8ICH: Complaint filed November 2018.

• TH1S ON: Complaint filed January 2018.

• J3WBRNR: Complaints filed August-September 2017.

• KO1TUS: Complaint filed November 2015.

• MT5Q4: Complaint filed September 2015.

• NEGROS: Complaint filed February 2015.

• HMFIC: Complaints filed June 2014 to February 2015, reporting that the plate abbreviates a military expression that contains a profanity.

Ten other plates remain “under review,” according to commission officials.

• DANITE: Complaint filed August 2019, reporting the plate refers to a religious sect associated with violence.

• EFGAS: Complaints filed May to August 2019, reporting that the plate appears on an electric car and appears to abbreviate a profanity.

• SAY X: Complaint filed May 2019.

• EFOPEC: Complaint filed April 2019, reporting that the plate appears on an electric car and appears to abbreviate a profanity.

• CLAVERY: Complaint filed September 2018.

• 2SPNK4U: Complaint filed August 2018.

• SK1DMRK: Complaint filed June 2018.

• POWHOAR: Complaint filed August 2017.

• IH8SUWA: Complaints filed February to March 2016, reporting the plate appears to target the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

• SLEAZE: Complaint filed April 2015.