Vanity plates: some take too much license


When Tony Cava got a letter from the state about somebody complaining that his personalized license plate came across as “vulgar, profane or offensive to good taste and decency,” he was, well, “pretty befuddled.”

The plate on his white 1989 BMW says, “GOES211.”

He thought, what’s so vulgar about that?

Cava, 53, is a fan of “This is Spinal Tap,” the 1984 mockumentary about a fictional heavy metal group. The license plate is an homage to the classic scene in which band member Nigel explains that while other amps go to 10 on the volume control, theirs goes to 11, “if we need that extra push over the cliff.”

A man identifying himself as Johnny Dixon wasn’t thinking “Spinal Tap” when he spotted the plate.

Last October, Dixon emailed the Department of Licensing: “I find it in poor taste that the great state of Washington would issue a plate that allows a driver to insinuate in public that his penis grows to 11 inches in length. The rest of the citizens of Washington should not be subjected to this vulgarity.”

And so the case of GOES211 ended up before something called the DOL’s Personalized License Plate Committee. Bureaucracies like committees, and lists.

State law gives the agency authority to determine what is and isn’t offensive in a personalized plate. But even if the DOL approves a plate, anyone who spots a plate on the road and takes offense can make a complaint. Then, the agency investigates.

There are plenty of terms that can offend.

The agency has compiled a list of 654 “DO NOT ISSUE” terms for vanity plates since the state began issuing them in 1975.

Using everything from Google searches that include foreign-language and slang dictionaries, to asking translators to explain what something means in Russian, the committee decides what crosses the offensive line.

Think high-school humor: GETSOM, LUVBED, JUMPME, HUMPER, INHEAT, NYMPHO, OLDFART, IRSUCKS, GONAD, WANTSEX, GSPOT, BLUBALS, ZIGZAG, GO2HELL.

The committee, made up of six people ranging from a State Patrol representative to a DOL administrator, is the last resort of appeal for questionable plates, and it’s where complaints from the public about a specific plate usually end up.

In the case of GOES211, the committee let Cava keep his plate.

“The complaint was, pardon my pun, a stretch,” says Brad Benfield, a DOL spokesman who’s served 10 years on the committee.

Asked for comment about his complaint, Dixon emailed back, “What exactly is it that you want to know? I find it disturbing that you can access my emails to the DOL.”

Public records for this story were first obtained by governmentattic.org., with additional records requested by The Seattle Times.

The committee handles about 12 cases a year, which is obviously a miniscule fraction of the 84,000 vanity plates out there.

Then there was the case of Fred Talbot, a Sammamish account manager who likes to hunt.

In 2010, he was denied the license plate “ELKNUT” for his Dodge Ram pickup.

He remembers the DOL calling him: “The lady said people might think you’re referring to an elk’s testicles,” Talbot recalls. “I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding! This is silly!’”

Talbot wrote the committee: “This is a very well known name in elk hunting circles as it is the name of an Internet company called Elknut Productions which sells products to help elk hunters … I did not ask for ‘ELKNUTS’ or ‘ELKSNUT,’ yes, even I would agree that might be taken the wrong way.”

The agency then found that it had issued 60 personalized plates with “NUT” as the last three characters ? DUKNUT, PIGNUT, HOGNUT.

So the committee allowed Talbot his personalized plate that’d cost him $69.75. He now diplomatically says about it all, “I thought they were a little too conservative.”

But it is in the documents from the committee that you see the emotions involved.

Randall Larson, 60, a retired quality engineer, is still steaming about how, in 2011, the DOL yanked his plate, “FUBAR.”

He’d had it for 36 years on various vehicles he owned.

Then a complaint came from Tracy Brechbiel, a Camano Island engineer.

He wrote the agency: “I learned of ‘FUBAR’ in the military … Some may think of ‘Fouled Up Beyond All Repair,’ but I learned it as …(Bleep!) Up Beyond All Repair/Recognition.’ I find this to be an unacceptable acronym …”

Larson has a different take.

He’s a 1970 South Whidbey High School grad, and says that since those days, “All my friends know me as Fubar because I was all (Bleep again!) up. I was a child of the 70s.”

But, he told the committee, to him the plate really stood for “Fun, Unique, Beautiful And Rare” because “that was my personality at the time.”

The committee didn’t buy his argument. The plate had to be taken off his pickup.

Says Larson, “We live in a politically correct world. I mean, it meant no harm to anybody. Come on, people, who was I hurting?”

Finally, we come to the case of “THE BOP.”

Roger Baker, 68, used to be police chief in Des Moines.

He and his wife, Shirley Baker, 60, now run Business of Policing (BOP), a consulting firm.

So they were quite surprised when in September 2010, the state rejected their application to have “THE BOP” as their vanity plate.

It turned out the agency’s staff had gone to Wikipedia and the Urban Dictionary. It takes work, trying to figure out hidden meanings.

They found “BOP” could mean everything from “early modern jazz” to … holy smokes!

Says Shirley Baker, “Our circle of friends, even cops, were clueless about any kind of negative connotation.”

The committee allowed the plate.

Says the ex-police chief about having to fight the DOL’s initial decision, “Why?”

Why? Because the public’s imagination knows no bounds about what’s dirty. Says Tracy Brechbiel, the guy who complained about FUBAR, “Give me any three letters, make one of them an ‘F’ and I can come up with something that would be obscene.”