Here's what happened inside the DMV after they found out about a FART license plate
More than 100 emails and documents lay out what state workers did behind the scenes when they discovered they'd issued a stinker of a specialty plate.
Folks, you know what makes America great? Public records requests. Anyone can file one with almost any government agency about nearly anything! This is how attorneys know to send you a letter after you get a speeding ticket, or how body shops might find you after you get into a wreck. (Traffic citations are public records!)
I’ve used public records requests quite a bit over the years. I’ve filed them with the FBI and the Secret Service and NASA. They don’t have to be super serious endeavors, though. I received public records from the National Parks Service and a few state and local agencies after a small island formed at the tip of Cape Hatteras in 2017. Thanks to those records, I discovered that 1.) government officials really didn’t want to call it an island and 2.) a teenager asked, very nicely, if he could have it. You can also, in a very meta way, file a public records request for all public records requests. I did this in 2013 after Gaston County’s sheriff and its county commissioners pushed to make gun permit records private. Their reasoning: Anyone could ask for and get the names and addresses of gun owners and then do bad things. But when I asked for all records of public records requests for permits, I discovered that only two people had ever done that: A reporter for the Gaston Gazette and… me.
I digress. A public records request is a tool you can use to understand a little bit more about how your government works. And so, that is why I asked the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) for any and all records relating to the issuance of a license plate that said FART on it.
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The background here: A woman in Asheville requested—and got—a customized “Friends of the Smokies” FART license plate in October of last year. She then proceeded to put it on her truck, and drove all around town for months before someone complained. The Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) then sent her a letter saying she had to give them a good reason why she the plate wasn’t offensive. She then, in 24 hours, conjured up an organization called Friends of Asheville Recreational Trails, built a website, and held a meeting in which 15 people attended.
It didn’t work. NCDOT told her she could keep the plate, but she wasn’t allowed to have it on her truck anymore. However, the woman, Karly Sindy, parlayed that into a few moments of fame, and even appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! to talk about it.
However, all was not what it seemed.
The Rabbit Hole put in a public records request in early March and, a few weeks later, and received more than 100 emails and records relating to the FART license plate. They show what was happening behind the scenes as Karly scrambled to save her plate.
For a moment, the DMV wasn’t sure if it was a real plate
The initial complaint came in on Saturday, February 12th, when a deputy secretary of transportation emailed the image below to a special projects coordinator at the DMV. It’s not clear how that person got the image, though. She was just passing it along, she said. It wasn’t until two days later, on Valentine’s Day, when that employee started asking, wait, is this plate real?
At first, a manager at the DMV headquarters in Rocky Mount said it was a fake. But then she quickly realized what happened: A temp in her office had approved the plate by mistake. That temp thought it was okay because, in the system, the plate came across as FARTSM instead of just FART. That’s when the manager realized that the DMV had actually put this thing into the world. Two minutes after she admitted it, someone else chimed in and told her to recall it immediately.
Not long after all that, someone asked: Don’t we have a way to automatically catch stuff like this? That poor manager in Rocky Mount replied (sic):
We are checking text from everywhere like Google, Urban dictionary etc. and we have bad text list we are adding the text but somehow we can’t catch up the text. We are receiving around 1100 plates every week. What else I can say.. This is human error.
The letter recalling the plate went out on February 15, but Karly didn’t open it until February 24. It was then that she went turbo, posting on Twitter and Reddit and asking for help. But the DMV wasn’t aware of what Karly had done until the next day, when a News & Observer reporter contacted the agency and started asking questions. Internally, one email shows a clear line about how to respond:
Since this was a standard plate that was previously refused and should have never been issued, Special Plates recalled this plate without going before the committee.
At this point, someone cc’d the DMV commissioner, Wayne Goodwin, with a copy of the state’s special plate policy. That’s right, this FART floated all the way to the top.
So, what are the rules about all of this?
The state’s special plate policy says this: License plates, via Supreme Court case law, are considered to be government speech, and the DMV has “broad discretion” to say no to plates that could be considered “indecent.” If a plate that’s already been issued gets three complaints in a year, an official letter goes out, and the owner has 30 days to explain what it means. Otherwise, that owner has to return the plate, and gets a standard plate in return for free. Any appeals go before a committee of some fairly important people, including “the Director of Vehicle Services, the Special Plate Manager, the Public Information Officer, and a designee from the Offices of NCDOT General Counsel, the NC Attorney General and NCDOT Civil Rights.” They’re supposed to meet monthly to review special plate cases.
But in this case, none of that happened. Sure, only one complaint came in, not three. But if a plate is already on the list, or if that committee has previously made a decision about some text, the policy says that plate can be recalled immediately, without any chance for appeal.
Why did the DMV tell Karly she could appeal the decision, then?
That appears to have been another mistake. The letter that the DMV sent Karly looked like a standard form letter created in Microsoft Word. But the wording of it left the door open to an appeal, even though it was never going to be allowed. Karly told me that if she’d been told that she couldn’t appeal, she would never have formed Friends of Asheville Recreational Trails, and none of this hilarity would have ever ensued.
After the N&O story appeared, there was a flurry of activity within the DMV, mostly of the “Fwd: Have you seen this?” variety. Other reporters started emailing questions. In one internal email, the Rabbit Hole showed up:
Really something! Thanks!
In another email, the social media coordinator noted that “The one and only Hayes Permar chimed in.” Way to go, SportsChannel 8.
After the story started to get picked up in the press and on social media, someone requested a Save The Honey Bee license plate with FART on it. The request was denied.
A call from Jimmy Kimmel’s producers
Then, in early March, a producer for Jimmy Kimmel Live! contacted the DMV. The show wanted to do a segment with Karly, and they had some questions. Again, the state had decided weeks before to recall the FART plate, but hadn’t told Karly this directly, so she was preparing a fairly long letter full of pictures, quotes, and other evidence to prove that FART represented Friends of Asheville Recreational Trails. The DMV, though, wanted to let Karly down gently, so communications staffers started to draft a letter that would be shared with Karly on-air:
We did not mean to cause a stink, but wanted to let you know that we were low key impressed with your efforts to work the system. As long as you keep it off your vehicles, we will let you hang on to the FART plate...
F is for forgiveness in this situation,
A is for our appreciation for you as a DMV customer,
R is for how you let this one rip... and kept on truckin’,
T is for TOOT... the sound a car horn makes... and the name on your new plate.
This story certainly got good gas mileage...
-Your friends at the North Carolina Department of Transportation and Division of Motor Vehicles
P.S. While you say you aren’t a “marketing person” ... you just got us on national television. We are hiring... have your people call our people.
The next few emails are just some tweaks and edits, like “I low-key think low-key needs a hyphen” and “I’m kind of torn about using ‘work the system’” and “Take out ‘we will let you.’” Also, the part about giving her a TOOT license plate to replace FART was canned after one of the workers discovered that somebody already had a TOOT license plate.
None of this ever made it to air, though. A communications staffer told me by phone that Kimmel’s producers decided not to use the letter, and kept her in the dark about her rejection. So in the clip, Kimmel wishes her good luck in her fight, even though everybody but Karly already knows for sure that she’s lost.
The long tail of the FART
In the end, we don’t know who made the initial complaint, only that it first ended up with a DMV higher-up who passed it along. (That higher-up has since left the agency, and a request for comment from the Rabbit Hole went un-returned.) But we now know that the DMV never wavered from its decision to recall the plate in early February, even though the agency sent Karly a letter saying she’d have a chance to fight it. There was plenty of internal discussion happening at the DMV, but it wasn’t until March 9—nearly a month after the initial complaint—that Karly got an official letter from the DMV telling her that she’d lost. Hence, the breaking news I wrote about the plate’s rejection wasn’t breaking news at all. The decision had been final for weeks.
Still though, the FART is more powerful in death than it was in life. Karly has taken the plate everywhere. The Carolina Hurricanes gave her some swag, including a FART puck. She’s created a FART Festival, and continues to use proceeds from sticker sales to help charities.
She’s also requested some new custom plates for her truck, including PHART and F4RT.
Both have been rejected.
Favorite story of the year and wonderfully covered by Mr. NCRH
As a government bureaucrat myself, i love seeing a public records request used for good, not evil. And the Hayes Permar shoutout! Is there anyone who doesn’t know of DHPIV?