City Desk

Are Anti-Statehood License Covers Illegal?

licenseplatecover2002Have you seen this car? Earlier today, Capitol Hill resident Jay Goodman Tamboli snapped a photo of this BMW parked on 4th Street SE between East Capitol and A streets and sent it out via Twitter. Take a closer look at the license plate. See the cover? It reads "DC's Not a State, Get Over It."And it completely covers up the "Taxation Without Representation" message on the plate in the process. A pretty bold declaration in a city that's been yearning for voting rights for years and years and years, eh?

We've heard there may be more such license plate covers on Capitol Hill, including what's been described as a Ford Excursion with Alaska plates. Does anyone have additional info? We'd love to hear from you.

So is such a license plate cover illegal? There are D.C. regulations on the books that dictate that license plates "shall be maintained free from foreign materials and in clearly legible condition." Five years ago, D.C. police started to enforce a law making license plate covers illegal. A cottage industry had sprang up selling tinted and clear plastic covers that could evade traffic enforcement cameras.

But are the anti-D.C. statehood covers—which only obscure the iconic protest message on D.C. plates, not the tag number itself—out of step with D.C. law? We have an inquiry in with the city and will report back when more information becomes available.

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  • Peter Orvetti

    Interesting question. If drivers had no choice but to get a plate with a political message on it, I'd say the covers should be permitted. But drivers do have access to a plate without the "Taxation Without Representation" message: .

    That said, if the covers don't actually obstruct the identification, it's hard to see why they should be prohibited.

  • Rick Mangus

    He's right, "GET OVER IT"!

  • Matt Schwartz

    The Supreme Court has actually discussed this issue. In 1977, the Court took a case in which a New Hampshire resident had been arrested several times — and even sentenced to jail time — for covering up the state’s motto, “Live Free or Die,” which appeared on the plate. The Court held that the state of New Hampshire had violated the driver’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech by forcing him to carry a message he found “morally, ethically, religiously and politically abhorrent.”

    Seems like Jay is in the clear.

    Matt Schwartz,
    Co-Host, Lex Appeal

  • Beau Finley

    Christ almighty, Matt, it's not Jay's car.

  • Mike Panetta

    What a douche.

    You can actually get at plate without the Taxation message. Plates that start with BJ just say "Washington, DC" with the website.

    We need statehood plates. Who's with me?

  • marybindc

    I have also seen a plate that has no cover, but has black tape over the "Taxation Without Representation" at the bottom. Interesting that the Supreme Court has discussed the issue! (by "interesting" I mean "somewhat scary, don't they have better things to do")

  • denise

    I think this was pretty well covered in a Supreme Court case where a citizen covered up the "live Free or Die" portion of the plate. Since the legitimate government action here is the licensing and tracking of vehicles, one cannot force someone to carry an expression they don't like. In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Wooley v. Maynard, 430 U.S. 705, that the State of New Hampshire could not prosecute motorists who chose to hide part or all of the motto. That ruling came about because George Maynard, a Jehovah's Witness, covered up "or die" from his plate. "[B]y religious training and belief, I believe my 'government' - Jehovah's Kingdom - offers everlasting life. It would be contrary to that belief to give up my life for the state, even if it meant living in bondage." [2] Pursuant to these beliefs, the Maynards began early in 1974 to cover up the motto on their license plates.

    He was convicted of breaking a state law against altering license plates.

  • cminus

    This actually came up at a hearing of the Committee on Public Works and Transportation last year. The DMV testified that they've historically permitted drivers to cover up the slogan at the bottom of the plate so long as the plate data could be read, but that they'd recently had their lawyers review the law and concluded that the law as written requires the slogan to be uncovered. They admitted, however, that enforcement of this provision was virtually nonexistent.

    FWIW, the DMV's lawyers' discussion of Wooley v. Maynard followed Peter Orvetti's and Mike Panetta's interpretation: they can prohibit the covering up of a license plate slogan, so long as they offer multiple license plate designs, including one or more carrying a neutral statement. They didn't use the word "douche" to describe people who actually support taxation without representation, but they may have been thinking it.

  • Rick Mangus

    'Mike Penneta' so certainly rank right up their as a finalist in the dumbass awards!

  • B

    Actually, the ideological slogan is the only one still available. I registered a car in D.C. last week, and the clerk told me that the website plates are no longer available. So apparently the slogan now may be covered, since there is no longer an alternative. Not that I plan to, but I could without fear of reprisal.

  • JaimeIslandGuy

    there are already rulings saying they cant be. The Dc is legible and the number is legible.

    By the way DC stopped allowing plates without the political motto. Your link no longer works

  • JaimeIslandGuy

    no one. you are the douche

  • JaimeIslandGuy

    how is it scary? it is a government entity promoting itself in forced political speech.