PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — It’s no secret that Rhode Islanders love their license plates.
That’s why thousands of residents have custom vanity plates tailored toward their personalities.
“You have to self-identify,” Warwick resident Carl DuFault said. “I don’t know if it’s a Rhode Island thing or if it’s an Italian thing.”
DuFault told 12 News he’s always wanted to get a vanity license plate to reflect his job as a wedding officiant.
But he recently hit a speed bump when he went online to apply for one.
DuFault said when when he clicked on the application, he was met with a message from the Rhode Island Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) stating that no new vanity plate requests are being accepted at this time.
12 News reached out to the DMV to learn when the state would start accepting vanity plate applications again.
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Paul Grimaldi, a spokesperson for the DMV, said the state suspended the vanity plate application process about two years ago.
“There is no timeline for when those may resume,” he said in a statement.
So, what brought the application process to a screeching halt?
It appears to have stemmed from a lawsuit involving an environmentally conscious car owner’s controversial vanity plate.
Back in 2020, Sean Carroll took the state to court after the DMV requested he turn in his plates in response to an anonymous complaint. The DMV gave Carroll an ultimatum: if he didn’t return his “FKGAS” license plate, his car registration would be canceled.
The Tesla owner argued that his license plate is supposed to be read as “fake gas,” though others interpreted it as being profane.
The judge sided with Carroll in the end and determined the state was violating his right to free speech.
“It’s not my fault that [the DMV] stopped the program,” Caroll’s attorney Tom Lyons said. “I assume they were going to try and define what was considered offensive … and that hasn’t happened because it is, in fact, very difficult to do that.”
“If you want an easy solution, you abolish vanity license plates,” he added.
The DMV pumped the brakes on the application process as a result, and asked Rhode Islanders for input on new standards for the approval and rejection of vanity plates.
Fast forward nearly two years, and DMV still hasn’t put the wheels back in motion.
“In light of court decisions, both locally and nationally, the RI DMV attorneys are drafting regulations that comply with those decisions to begin issuing new vanity plates,” Grimaldi explained. “We have no estimate for when that process will be complete.”
The vanity plate conundrum isn’t unique to Rhode Island.
Maine stopped vetting vanity plates back in 2015 following a similar court ruling. The state also began removing questionable license plates from its roads this year, including one proclaiming a vegan’s love for tofu.
While Rhode Island isn’t legally obligated to offer vanity plates, Lyons said the state is losing out on the millions of dollars it could make through the program.
Between fiscal years 2018 and 2021, data from the DMV suggests the vanity plate fee alone generated close to $2.3 million for the state.
“I don’t know why they’re not letting people get vanity license plates,” Lyons said. “If it’s just because they’re afraid of one person calling up and complaining about one plate, at the very least, that’s a bad business decision.”
In the meantime, the lack of answers regarding if and when the state will start accepting applications again is frustrating to the Rhode Islanders still interested in getting one.
“I’d be very disappointed if we can’t resolve whatever issue there is about having vanity plates,” DuFault said. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed, but I’m not holding my breath.”
12 News has also learned the more than 23,000 drivers who already have vanity license plates are allowed to renew them. R.I. House lawmakers have introduced a proposal to prohibit the DMV from charging additional fees for vanity plate renewals, but it has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.