Criminal Law

Your Vanity Plates May Spell Trouble

Vanity plates are popular with drivers who want to personalize their vehicles and express themselves. Some drivers root for their favorite sports teams, like the Boston "RDSOX," while others like to express some personality, like "OH2BME."

Often, a lot of thought and imagination goes into selecting the right message for your your plate (or "PL8"). There are times, however, when a vanity plate draws more attention than the driver wants - like when he starts getting traffic tickets that he doesn't deserve.

Plates That Spell "TRUBL"

Scottie Roberson of Birmingham, Alabama, is a race car driver. His nickname is "Racer X," from the famed Speed Racer television show and recent movie. He purchased a vanity plate for personal car. The plate reads simply "XXXXXXX."

The simple plate has caused him considerable trouble. He's received about $19,000 in parking tickets, and through no fault of his own. According to city officials, when a parking patrol officer comes across an illegally parked car with no license plates, they use seven X's when entering the ticket into the city's computer system. So, every time an officer types in XXXXXXX into the computer, it's Roberson, and not the car's true owner, who gets the ticket.

He says sometimes he gets as many as 10 tickets per day, and city officials are working to fix the problem.

Ves Flavious Burgess, who lives in Hickman County, Kentucky, has a similar problem. He's an avid fan of the University of Kentucky's basketball team, as his vanity plate explains: "IAM4UK." No big deal, right? Unfortunately for Burgess, UK fans all over the country have been buying fake or "novelty" license plates that read "IAM 4UK." These novelty plates look real enough, to the untrained eye. They're made of metal, are the right size, and have "Kentucky" on them.

The problem for Burgess is, fans are putting these novelty plates on their cars, and when they get a parking or traffic ticket, Burgess gets the ticket. And the tickets are from all over the country. For instance, Baltimore, Maryland officials claim that Burgess owes over $4,000 in citations. He's even received citations from cities in Colorado.

Burgess swears that he's never been to Baltimore or Colorado, and it seems clear to everyone involved that it's not his car that's been involved in all the infractions. As of today, there's been no fix for his problem, but he's adamant about not paying for tickets he doesn't deserve.

Easy to Get

You can get vanity plates in most if not all states, and for just about any type of vehicle, like cars, trucks, motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). Each state has its own rules about the maximum number of character you can use and how much they cost. Vanity plates cost more than regular license plates, and you generally have to pay the extra cost each year, or whenever you renew the plates.

Most states have Web sites where you can search the vanity plates already taken by other drivers to make sure the plate you want is still available. You can also check in person at the local branch of your state's bureau or department of motor vehicles. Someone there may also be able to warn you about any potential trouble your plate may cause.

Choose Wisely

Sometimes, trouble comes through no fault of your own, as Roberson and Burgess can tell you. But sometimes a driver's ingenuity and creativity may lead to some unexpected and unwanted attention. And sometimes, you simply won't be allowed to use the phrase or word you want to. For example, it's very unlikely that a state agency will intentionally issue a plate that contains curse words or vulgarities. Sometimes, however, a risqué plate slips through.

And ask yourself, will a plate reading "BYOFCER" make a traffic cop or highway patrol officer pay more attention to your car? Will a sexually-oriented plate lead to unwanted come-ons and advances by other drivers intrigued by the plate's message? And what if your children drive the car?

Have some fun, and be creative with your vanity plates, but be aware that your choice may have some unexpected results.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can I copyright my vanity plate so that I can charge other people for the right to use my phrase?
  • If, like Mr. Burgess in Kentucky, I get traffic tickets by mistake from other states, do I have to go to those states or cities and fight the tickets? If I don't pay, I could be arrested, right?
  • I'm thinking of buying an older car, and the current owner has a neat vanity plate. Will the vanity plate transfer to me if I buy the car?
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