Legally Weird - The FindLaw Legal Curiosities Blog

DMV Wins Vulgar License Plate Lawsuit

Nearly every new car owner thinks, at least for a moment, about whether to get a vanity plate and what it would say. John Mitchell, a Maryland man, decided he would not only get a vanity plate, he wanted to get one with a Spanish curse word. While he was likely surprised that his requested plate was approved, he used the plate for two years before the DMV even knew what they did.

When the DMV discovered the plate had been issued in error, as vulgar language is not permitted, they cancelled the plate. Mr. Mitchell filed and lost an administrative appeal, then took the matter to the state court and lost, and appealed all the way to the state's supreme court, where he finally lost for the last time.

Cosmo Kramer Makes a 'Pop In' to the Court's Opinion

In the opinion, written by Judge Glenn Harrell, Jr., he specifically reminds readers of "'Seinfeld' (Episode 107 (27 April 1995))" where "Kramer was sent erroneous vanity plates bearing the words 'ASSMAN.'" While Kramer received plates that were supposed to go to a proctologist, based on Judge Harrell's conclusion in this case, it is unlikely that either Kramer or the doctor would have actually been allowed to have that license plate.

In Mitchell's case, Judge Harrell explained in his opinion that Mitchell had selected "the Spanish slang word 'MIERDA'" for his vanity plate, and that "'MIERDA' in English means 'sh*t.'" Clearly, as the state would not print the English word on a license plate, it makes sense a non-English equivalent wouldn't be allowed either.

The First Amendment And License Plates

Judge Harrell, in Mitchell's license plate case, clearly explained that license plates do not have First Amendment protection, similar to a previous case where a group wanted to have the stars and bars printed on a license plate. While it may be universally recognized that a person with a vanity plate selected the message on the plate because it is a government issued tag, any message may be understood as being approved by the government. As such, there are limits as to what is or isn't allowed on plates.

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