12 INVESTIGATES: License plates rejected by the DMV
RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Welcome to Virginia. The vanity plate capital of the US. One in every six Virginian's has vanity tags on their cars. That's more than a million Virginian's who pay an extra $10 a year to speak their minds on their bumpers.
But- not every message is welcome. Army veteran Sean Bujno had a license plate on his car for years before the Department of Motor Vehicles asked for it back.
It reads: "ICU HAJI".
The dictionary defines 'Haji' as one who has made a pilgrimage to Mecca, but it's also a derogatory word for Arabs.
"Some people say this is just a license plate, but it actually is about the first amendment. This is about a fundamental right," said Andrew Meyer. He's a Richmond-based attorney, one of two men representing Bujno.
Rachel: "Did he mean it as a racial slur as some people are saying?"
Meyer: "For what's its worth, he doesn't - but it doesn't matter. It's a right to say what you want to say. It's a right to make an expression on a forum that's been opened up to make expressions."
A judge has already ruled the DMV can't reject plates based on what it thinks the applicant is trying to express. It's called viewpoint discrimination. The judge sent the case back through the view process and the DMV is still challenging the plates, but this time with a different reason. Bujno's attorney has appealed and this case will be back before the judge this summer.
In the meantime, we obtained the list of no-no's. All the plates people have tried to get. It's the size of a phone book. Pages and pages of recalled and banned plates, dating back to the 90's. In 2012 alone, the DMV denied or recalled 860 plates.
"That's less than one half of one percent," said DMV spokesperson Sunni Brown. She says there's a 20 person committee that meets each month to go over questionable plates and complaints from citizens. The DMV Commissioner has the final say if there's a dispute. Any citizen is allowed to appeal.
"That committee is made up of a very diverse group of DMV employees who look at it in relationship to the guidelines that are in place and decide whether or not that message is going to be allowed," said Brown.
The DMV has very specific standards: Plates can't be obscene or vulgar, sexually explicit, excretory-related or used to describe intimate body parts, and they can't condone violence or describe illegal activities.
"These license plates are personal property of the Commonwealth of Virginia. They are not personal property," argues Brown.
Bujno's attorney sees it differently. "These license plates are state property, but that doesn't mean the state can control every message that's on state property," said Meyer.
Copyright 2013 WWBT NBC12. All rights reserved.