Bill would prohibit disparaging vanity license plates after ‘DEPORTM’ controversy

A Utah state senator introduced a bill Tuesday that would allow the Utah Division of Motor Vehicles to refuse to issue a license plate that disparages someone based on race, color, national origin, religion, age, gender, citizenship status and other immutable characteristics.

That move from Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, comes just weeks after a license plate bearing the phrase “DEPORTM” sparked controversy on social media and prompted changes to the state system for reviewing personalized license plates.

The existing statute forbids any combination of letters or numbers that “may carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency or that would be misleading.” In general, the Motor Vehicles Division notes on its website that that would extend to license plates that “express contempt, ridicule or superiority of a race, religion, deity, ethnic heritage, gender, or political affiliation.”

But Escamilla’s bill would codify that prohibition through SB97, which would also prohibit denials of a personalized license plate request if the letters, numbers or combination refer to an official state symbol.

In an interview, Escamilla said her bill came out of an administrative rules committee hearing last month where the license plate issue was addressed.

“The DMV came back and said it would be helpful if you guys are more clear, have more clarity on the guidelines so they can put administrative rules in place to have a rule to say no to a personal license plate or they feel they’re within the parameters of the intent of the law," she said. “The more clarity we give to the DMV, the easier it is.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, asks a questions during a committee meeting to discuss bill SB46, at the Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020.

Tammy Kikuchi, a spokeswoman with the Utah Tax Commission, which oversees the Division of Motor Vehicles, said the group has met with Escamilla and provided input on the bill but added that she could not speak to any of its specifics.

“It’s her bill,” she said. “It’s not ours. We did not ask her for the bill," though the commission said at last month’s legislative meeting that it welcomes any help in crafting additional requirements to review plates.

Over the years, the motor vehicles division has denied requests for vanity plates like "3MERL0T," "4TWENTY," “4PLAY,” and "DA^NUTZ." But the “DEPORTM” plate, which was approved in 2015 under different division leadership, passed muster and remained in use — despite at least three previous complaints to state officials.

Kikuchi told The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday that the owner of the “DEPORTM” plate has been notified that it was revoked, beginning a period of 30 days for the person to appeal.

“They haven’t appealed yet that I know of,” she said. “I don’t know if they’re planning to.”

In response to the controversy, the agency has also begun entering all complaints into a shared system so that "anyone in the hierarchy of decision-making” can see them, Scott Smith, executive director of the Utah Tax Commission, told a legislative committee last month. And multiple complaints about a particular plate will now trigger a review by the Utah Attorney General’s Office.

Shortly after the “DEPORTM” plate raised eyebrows, Utahns began questioning the approval of a vanity plate reading “FUHRER.” It’s unclear whether Escamilla’s proposed prohibitions would touch a plate like that, which was approved in 2019 despite the term’s association with Adolf Hitler. Her bill would not affect license plates that are already in circulation.

Gun advocates, meanwhile, are appealing the DMV’s rejection of plate requests referencing the Browning M1911 semiautomatic pistol, which the Legislature in 2011 designated as the official state firearm. The division’s rules do not allow weapons references on license plates.

Escamilla’s bill would address those complaints, requiring DMV officials to consider legislative positions or state symbols — like the official Utah firearm designation — when reviewing vanity plate requests.