Want a personalized license plate? The State may refuse to give it to you

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by Scott Noll / KHOU 11 News

khou.com

Posted on February 4, 2013 at 11:19 PM

Updated Monday, Feb 4 at 11:20 PM

HOUSTON – Specialty license plates are big business in Texas. In fact, sale of the plates brought in more than $14 million for the state since 2009. But a KHOU 11 News I-Team review of appeals letters from car owners who had their plates denied has some people asking if the Department of Motor Vehicles is using any common sense at all.

On a recent Friday night, dozens of Texans filled the chairs of an auction, bidding thousands of dollars for ten unique specialty license plates.

“For us, it’s about supporting a team,” explained Kate Whaley, of Missouri City. She and her husbanded bid unsuccessfully on a just-released “DYNAMO” license plate.

“I think they just look cooler than what you get from the state,” explained Tony Sullivan, an auction-goer from Houston.

That same cool factor is why Jose Serrano wanted to personalize the plate of his convertible Corvette.

“This is why it's called topless,” explained Serrano as he lowered the roof of his car.

But when he tried to put “GOTOPLS” on a license plate, the state put the brakes on the plan. The DMV explained other drivers could find the plate offensive.

“They're the ones with the dirty mind, not me,” insisted Serrano. “If you're a stripper maybe, but because it's a convertible, I figured that's the personality of the car.

Serrano tried appealing the state’s decision, but still had the plate rejected.

Hai Ho was also told the plate he wanted was offensive.

“Do I take offense to it when someone calls me Ho? No. It's my last name,” explained the Katy resident. “It's like saying hello Johnson, hello Smith. Why would anyone take offense to a last name?”

But when Ho tried getting his nickname on a plate, the state said no to “2SLOHO.”

“Knowing me and knowing my last name, and providing the proof, I don't understand why it was denied,” said Ho.

In fact, the I-Team discovered the DMV issued plates with five other versions of “HO” in the last three years.

“People get more creative every day,” admitted Randy Elliston, Director of the Vehicle Titles and Registration Division of the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles www.txdmv.gov/.

The I-Team asked Elliston why one “HO” would be okay, but not another.

“Anyone driving down the highway doesn't have a clue what his nickname is or what his last name would be or anything like that,” explained Elliston. “As far as the other one, if it is on a Chevrolet Tahoe, people would probably identify that as they're referring to their vehicle.”

State law says license plates cannot be indecent, vulgar, reference illegal activities, misrepresent the vehicle as law enforcement or other governmental entity, or be derogatory.

While the guidelines may seem straightforward, the DMV rejected 544 proposed personal plates last year.

“We have to look out for what we believe is in the best interest of the people driving on the highways,” said Elliston admitting the line between acceptable and not can be gray at times.

Take the case of The Pink Box taco truck.

“We wanted to represent our signature dish which is the pink taco,” said the truck’s co-owner Greg Hernandez.

The entire pink truck is one big marketing machine, right down to the personalized, pink license plate, “PNK TACO.”

“We have to find a way to draw people in, to not look like every other taco truck on the corner,” explained Hernandez.

Even he admits being surprised the state gave him the plate because of the phrase’s less-literal meaning.

“I do remember the pink taco one,” said Elliston when asked about the plate. “It was actually on a big, taco type of van, truck so it's obvious what the message is there for anyone driving down the highway.”

But not everyone is amused.

“Oh no, no, no,” said Serrano looking over a list of accepted license plates he feels are more controversial than the one he wanted.

He, along with others who had their combinations rejected say it’s time for the DMV to be consistent with what it allows.

“You don't ride it with the top up, you drive with the top down,” said Serrano pleading his case. “You go topless!”

“When I tell you that Ho is my legal last name and the other one is the make and model,” said Ho shaking his head at the state’s explanation. “Just doesn't make any sense. It’s not right.”

“We want to sell people license plates and personalized license plate so it's certainly not that we want to deny one,” said Elliston. “But we do have to be prudent what we allow on the highway.”

The DMV admits that sometimes a plate that may cross the line gets past staffers. With that in mind, the agency can re-call a license plate if it receives complaints.

The state says it’s only revoked three plates in the last three years.

By the numbers 2012:

  • Registered Vehicles in Texas: 22,618,153
  • Personalized License Plate Issued: 163,944
  • Number of Plate Combinations Denied: 544

*Source TX Department of Motor Vehicles

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