3M3TIB looked harmless enough, so the state Department of Licensing granted the vehicle owner's request for a vanity plate to go on the woman's 2000 Ford pickup.
The party was over, however, when a cop read the personalized message in his rear view mirror as "BITEME."
Informed of the state's intent to rescind her license, the owner contended the license was but an innocent expression relating to her three kids. "3 Munchkins 3 times I believed (3M3TIB). There is no way that can be offensive to the public; it is just a way for me to express how I felt about my own children." Regulators found her argument unconvincing.
About 87,000 vehicles carry personalized plates in Washington, which works out to less than 2 percent of the 6.13 million passenger vehicles, trucks, motorcycles, and trailers that could qualify for them. Vanity plates for passenger vehicles run an extra $49.75 initially, and renewals are $32 per year. Those costs are in addition to all other fees.
The vast majority of the time, requested plates don't collide with statutory requirements that ban configurations deemed offensive to good taste and decency, or as potentially misleading, or vulgar, profane or sexually suggestive, among other standards, according to DOL spokesman Brad Benfield.
Still, in response to complaints, each year the agency reviews about a dozen personalized plates, about half of which are canceled as a result, he said. Regulators are noticing an emerging trend: the use of foreign words in an apparent attempt to elude detection.
For example, CABRON — literally Spanish for a male goat, but slang for bastard, asshole, fucker, bitch, etc. — was requested and granted to the owner of a 2001 Ford pickup. (What's up with Ford pickup owners, anyway?) It, too, was revoked in response to a complaint, despite the owner's claim that all it stood for was "California Bronze."
Then there was XPEHBAM, issued to a 1991 Plymouth Voyager, a Russian phrase for which DOL turned to a Russian translator for help before deciding to cancel it.
Crosscut checked with Leszek Chudzinski, a senior librarian in Slavic languages at the Seattle Public Library, who described it as a curse word which, exported to a license plate in the U.S., amounts to "up America's ass."
As is custom when it decides it's going to cancel a plate, the agency contacted the vehicle owner to give him a chance to appeal. But the DOL never heard back from the minivan's owner, Benfield said. When a motorist's vanity plate is canceled, they have the option of seeking a less-provocative, new vanity, or accepting a standard license plus a refund.
In some cases, owners have made a compelling argument and the agency has reversed its decision to cancel a plate.
For example, the owner of a 2003 Volkswagen GTI fought back after a cop complained that his personalized plate — 0241 — read backwards said I420, which the cop contended was associated with pot-smoking culture. The owner countered that his VW was a limited edition and the plate represented the series number in the production line. "It turned out to be true," Benfield recalled, and the individual was allowed to keep the plate.
For a while, UFNWISH actually adorned a 2006 Mustang. Following a complaint, the DOL rejected the owner's explanation that he was in the military, where UFN stood for "until further notice." Hence the meaning of his vanity was that his current vehicle "was not his dream car, but he'd wait," officials said. Part of the reason regulators rejected that story was they were trying to figure out what was not to like about a late model red coupe.
On the other hand, regulators were poised to cancel DOBEE on a 1981 Alfa because it was viewed as slang for a joint. But they reconsidered after hearing the owner's explanation:
"She said it was half of an old expression her grandma used to use: 'Be a do bee, not a don't be,'" Benfield said. "It seemed reasonable and genuine, and we didn't think she was trying to sneak something by us."
Benfield is on the DOL committee that meets every couple months to review the two or three plates that have become the subject of new complaints. Of the dozen or so they consider annually, "we seem to revoke about half," he said.
On the front end, considering applications when they arrive is vehicle licensing manager Toni Wilson.
"One of the clues is what the customer puts as the meaning," Wilson said, referring to a spot on the application that calls on the owner to provide an explanation. When the answer is "obscure or doesn't make sense," it raises flags, said Wilson, adding that people "will get into a debate when things have two different meanings."
The agency routinely turns to Google and the Urban Slang Dictionary to check on acronyms or a strange combination of letters and numbers. Those web tools, along with "some young folks that work here," help the agency spot requested tags with hidden meanings or new slang terms.
In borderline cases and for the sake of free expression, it's the agency's philosophy to permit personalized plates, officials said. "Usually we'll issue them with the idea to see how it plays out," Wilson said. "If people follow up with complaints, it goes to the review board."
In the past several years, no state resident has gone to court or otherwise appealed a decision by state regulators to cancel a vanity plate number, officials said. Motorists have been more assertive about pressing their cases elsewhere, according to a recent New York Times op-ed article.
Other vanity plates that were recently denied include: BAMF (Bad Ass MoFo), GH 69 (the state disallows the use of the number 69 unless it matches the model year of the vehicle), and 2FNCUTE. Plates that were the subject of complaints that were not canceled include: DEPORT, SATAN, GTNOFF, and NICEPKG.
In 2007, the state raked in $3.1 million from vanities, with $30 of each original set of plates and each renewal going to support wildlife programs. Personalized plates are separate from "special" plates that cost up to $45 each year (on top of standard licensing fees) and are available in a variety of categories, including collegiate, military, parks, and the environment.
Those who are considering a vanity can visit a DOL Web page where queries are quickly screened against the state's database of active plates as well as a list of about 600 banned combinations [52K Excel file]. The fact that a request isn't automatically rejected doesn't necessarily mean it will be accepted.
And here's a list of active vanity plates issued to King County residents [3.8 MB Excel file].