Legally Speaking: Oh vanity, thy name is lawyer

John G. Browning Jul. 24, 2012, 4:00am

I've always resisted the temptation to get vanity license plates. When I graduated from law school, my sister suggested personalized plates spelling out "JGB-ESQ;" I retorted that I might as well spell out "IM A TOOL."

To me, there just doesn't seem to be that much point to sharing any more of yourself than you have to with the rest of the world, much less advertising the fact that you're a lawyer to some "road rage" posterchild who thinks you cut him off in traffic and is probably packing.

Yet, personalized plates represent a personal choice, and many people out there feel compelled to share their school loyalties, sports team allegiances, pet peeves or as much of their personality as six or seven letters or numbers will convey. Sometimes, though, it can lead to unwanted attention and even legal woes.

Scottie Roberson of Birmingham races cars for a living, and his nickname is "Racer X" (from the "Speed Racer" cartoons and one appallingly bad movie). So, he purchased a vanity plate that reads "XXXXXXX."

Then the trouble began, in the form of about $19,000 in parking tickets that he didn't deserve. It seems that in Birmingham, when parking patrols encounter an illegally parked car without any plates, they document it in the city's computer system by entering seven Xs in lieu of any valid license plate number.

Unfortunately for Roberson, that brings the ticket to his doorstep, even though he's not the car's owner. At times, he's gotten up to 10 tickets in a single day. City officials have worked with Roberson to sort out the mess.

Similar problems have dogged Ves Burgess of Hickman County, Ky. He's a diehard fan of the national champion University of Kentucky men's basketball team, so much so that he has vanity plates issued by the Kentucky Division of Motor Vehicles that read "IAM4UK."

The only problem is, Kentucky has a lot of fans around the country, many of whom have purchased novelty plates that spell "IAM 4UK" (these plates are not issued by any state's DMV). As a result, Burgess has received parking or traffic tickets from places he swears he's never visited, like Baltimore, Maryland or cities in Colorado.

Meanwhile, Danny White of Washington, D.C., figured it would be "funny" 25 years ago to get vanity plates spelling out "NO TAGS." White says he was "just having fun . . .D.C. don't get the joke."

The District of Columbia's DMV definitely wasn't in on the joke, since every time a car without proper identification is cited for a violation, the DMV employee enters "NO TAGS" into the computer—and guess whose name, address, and vehicle pops up whenever this "NO TAGS" violation appears? You guessed it. Mr. White regularly spends time getting these tickets dismissed (even taking time off from work to do so), but he refuses to give up or change his license plate.

Still other drivers have run into problems with the DMV for ordering tags that convey a lewd message. Most of the time, such requests are denied. Occasionally, some have slipped through the cracks and had to be recalled (remember the "Seinfeld" episode in which Kramer mistakenly received the vanity plate "ASSMAN"?).

In New Jersey, a woman was ordered to return her "BIOTCH" vanity plate to the DMV when another motorist reported the "offensive" tags. And while some drivers think they're being cute, your vanity plate can come back and haunt you after a traffic stop such as the Texas plate that says "WASTED," the Virginia plate reading "HI OFECR," the California tag that spells out "HVABEER," or the Wisconsin plate bearing the creepy invitation "RU 18 YET."

Lawyers, it seems, are just as, if not even more, likely than the rest of the population to share with the rest of the world via their license plate. Vanity plates on cars obviously belonging to lawyers have included "IM LAWYR," "JD LADY," "ESQUIR," "LGLEASE," and "VERDICT."

It's also fairly common for lawyers to sport vanity plates that tout their academic pedigree, such as "UVA LAW," "NYU LAW," etc. (I once worked for a partner with "BAYLOR" personalized plates).

For some lawyers, their vanity plates tell you not just about their career choice, but also serve as a window into their personalities as well. The driver of the Mercedes coupe with the "RAINMKR" personalized plates and the driver of the Ferrari bearing the vanity "LAW PAYS" tag really, really want others to know how successful they are.

Meanwhile, the California driver with the "YNG LWYR" plate may be telling us how inexperienced he is, while the driver of the Lexus with the New York vanity tag "HOT LAWYR" could be issuing a completely different kind of invitation (and I don't mean that her air conditioning isn't working).

For other members of the legal profession, their license plate tells us more about what they do. I'm pretty sure that the person driving the Mercedes SUV with the California plates that spell "YO HONOR" is a judge, but is the driver of the beat-up Nissan Altima with the Ohio vanity tag "JUDGE" making a subtle comment about low judicial pay? And when I see vanity plates like "I SUE 4 U" and "SUSUM1" I know a plaintiff's lawyer is behind the wheel (probably a good reason to drive more cautiously).

On the other hand, running across the Ohio plate that reads "I ACQUIT," the Wisconsin tag with "I OBJCT," or the Texas vanity tag boasting "WE DFND" conveys the message that defense attorneys like their personalized plates, too. Louis Shapiro, a Cardozo Law graduate whose California vanity plate reads "WHATDUI," makes it abundantly clear that he defends driving under the influence charges.

And Paula Werme, a New Hampshire lawyer whose main area of practice is the defense of child abuse cases, fought a long-running battle with that state's DMV over her right to the vanity plate "H8DCYF" (DCYF refers to New Hampshire's Division of Children, Youth & Families, which Werme contends violates the civil rights of her clients on a continuing basis).

But for me, I choose not to "say it loud and say it proud" via my license plate. My school allegiances are obvious from my license plate frames, but as for the tag itself, I'm content to be just another number in the Department of Public Safety computer.

Otherwise, if you want to find out that I'm a lawyer, or what kind of lawyer , or whether I'm good at what I do, you'll just have to go where it really matters—the courtroom.

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