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N.H. Suspends Vanity Plates

West Lebanon — New Hampshire residents hoping to get creative through their license plates will have to wait until the state figures out what standards it can enforce for vanity plates.

Following a state Supreme Court ruling in May that found current law governing the wording on vanity plates to be “unconstitutionally vague,” the Department of Motor Vehicles has temporarily suspended the issuance of vanity plates as it revises the wording.

Normally, New Hampshire residents can apply for vanity plates at the DMV or through their town or city clerks. In addition to the regular fees for registration, there is a $40 fee for vanity plates.

Officials in several New Hampshire municipalities, including Lebanon, Hanover and Plainfield, said Tuesday they were not issuing new vanity plates at the direction of the DMV.

“Anyone that has a vanity plate and wants to renew it is fine, but for any new ones there’s a waiting period until (DMV officials) figure out how they’re going to proceed,” said Plainfield Town Clerk Michelle Marsh.

“We’re accepting applications from folks and telling them that they’re temporarily on hold, pending a resolution of this issue,” said Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin.

Current state law prohibits vanity plates that “a reasonable person would find offensive to good taste,” but does not define “good taste.” The law came into question when the DMV refused to allow Rochester, N.H., resident David Montenegro to have a license plate reading “COPSLIE.”

Montenegro had also sought other wording for a vanity plate, including “GOVTLAZ” and “GOVTSUX.”

The state Supreme Court ruling found that the standard could lead to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement, writing, “Because the ‘offensive to good taste’ standard is not susceptible of objective definition, the restriction grants DMV officials the power to deny a proposed vanity registration plate because it offends particular officials’ subjective idea of what is ‘good taste.’ ”

Vermont’s law regarding vanity plates is more specific than New Hampshire’s. The law prohibits language that is vulgar, obscene, sexual or related to drugs and alcohol.

Following the May court ruling, the New Hampshire DMV submitted more specific wording to the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules, which approved it on June 20.

According to Senior Assistant Attorney General Richard Head, the Attorney General’s Office collaborated with the DMV to revise the law.

“We often do work with agencies following Supreme Court decisions,” Head said.

Similar to Vermont’s law, the new wording would prohibit language related to sex, violence, drugs, gangs or bigotry. The so-called “interim rule” also states that any vanity plate in New Hampshire “which does not conform with the requirements, regardless of when the plate was issued” will be recalled.

Following the Joint Legislative Committee’s approval, the DMV has 30 days to adopt the interim rule, but the DMV has not yet done so.

Messages left Tuesday for DMV Director Richard Bailey were not returned Tuesday.

“They’ve got work to do on their protocol and their approval process,” Griffin said. “The ball is in the DMV’s and the attorney general’s court.”

Lauren Bender can be reached at lbender@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.