'Noplate' was no joke to California cops

Settle in and get comfortable if you've got a couple of minutes because this is good.

It's the story of a man named Robert Barbour of Los Angeles, who did something we all have to do, change our vehicle's license plates.

Well, it's about more than that, it's kind of about bureaucracies and the ways they respond.

Robert was a sailboat enthusiast and he wanted personalized plates that said either "SAILING" or "BOATING."

State forms listed three choices in order of preference. He listed those as his first two priorities and in the third slot he put "no plate" meaning if he couldn't get one of his first two choices he'd pass on the personalized plates and just accept whatever the state of California sent.

You're ahead of me, aren't you? Yep, when his new plates came back they said "NO PLATE."

Well, he thought that was kind of unique so he put them on his car. Four weeks later he received a notice from San Francisco for an overdue parking fine.

Robert hadn't been to San Francisco.

After that, on a daily basis, he got dozens of traffic violations from all over the state.

Here's what happened. When law enforcement officers would ticket vehicles parked illegally that did not have plates, they would write down "no plate."

Now that Robert had registered plates which said "NO PLATE," the California Department of Motor Vehicles' computers were sending him every traffic citation in the state which bore that description on the citation.

California is a big state.

Robert received 2,500 citations in six months. He alerted the state's DMV. They told him to change his plates.

Well, since Robert hadn't actually solicited those plates in the first place, and he was sort of getting a kick out of the whole thing, he decided he'd keep them.

He put a form letter together, explaining the situation and mailed it back to whatever law enforcement agency had sent him the latest ticket.

That usually worked, although he occasionally had to appear before some judge somewhere and physically demonstrate the offending vehicle in the citation was not his.

After a couple of years—years?— the California DMV finally caught on to what was happening.

They prepared a memo for distribution to the state's law enforcement agencies asking them to please refrain from writing "no plate" for offenses involving plateless vehicles.

The DMV suggested "none" or "missing."

And the state's officers complied. Robert's f low of traffic citations slowed to a trickle.

Everyone lived happily after.

Well, not quite everyone. Not Andrew Burg of Marina del Rey, California.

Burg's car had personalized license plates. "MISSING" they said.


Nobody could appreciate that story more than Scottie Roberson of Huntsville, Alabama, subject of a story in the Birmingham News last week.

Scottie's nickname is "Racer X," often shortened to just "X." He thought it would be cool to have license plates that were just X's, seven of them.

That is until parking citations from the city of Birmingham, totaling $19,000, arrived.

When Birmingham's parking patrols find cars without license plates parked illegally they just "x out" the little boxes on the citation form.

Scottie told the News he'd only been to Birmingham once in the past five years and he was pretty sure he hadn't, for instance, parked 10 different vehicles illegally in 10 different places on the same day.

And somewhere, Robert Barbour is chuckling.

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2009-10-29 digital edition

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