The Nation's Pulse

Scarlet Plates

Except in Ohio sex offenders will be required to display green ones.

By 3.21.07

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Ohio already mandates bright-yellow license plates with crimson letters for people convicted of drunken driving.

Seeking to add another color, bills have been introduced in the Ohio Legislature to require the state's most serious sex offenders -- habitual and violent wrongdoers -- to have fluorescent-green license plates.

And there's to be no car-borrowing to get around the law. "Those who knowingly allow a registered sex offender to use a vehicle without specialized plates could face criminal charges, according to the bill," reports the Daily Record in Wooster.

An earlier bill called for pink plates for sex offenders but went down to defeat after critics painted the legislation as too vindictive --- additionally, Mary Kay Cosmetics and advocates for breast cancer research raised objections about the color choice.

This time around, there's again no shortage of opponents.

With drunken driving, Ohio currently mandates the yellow plates for 4,945 motorists. Critics have raised concerns about probable cause, due process, privacy and unequal treatment.

On the issues of privacy and disparate treatment, opponents point out that people convicted of other crimes aren't as readily identifiable to the public as yellow-plated drunken drivers. There are no special plates, for instance, for murderers or drug dealers who've served their time and are back on the street.

Kill someone with a gun or an overdose and you remain blissfully anonymous on the roads, unidentified as someone the rest of us might well want to keep at a safe distance. In contrast, a guy has too many beers and he's forced to ride around in perpetuity with a state-mandated warning label.

In regard to due process and probable cause, critics charge that cops stop drivers with DUI plates more readily than they stop drivers with regular plates.

Concerning the efficacy of the proposed fluorescent-green plates, the head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, Christine Link, calls the legislation a matter of "political grandstanding." Rather than efficiently protecting minors, Link warns, the plates could lull kids into a false sense of security by allowing them to that anyone without a green plate is not dangerous.

Relevant to Link's point, the vast majority of Ohio's convicted sex offenders, given the lack of retroactivity in the proposed law, will be able to pull into any playground after the new legislation is enacted without any telltale license plates on their cars and trucks. "Ohio currently has 15,442 registered sex offenders," reports the Dayton Daily News. "The green plates would be required for people who commit certain sex crimes after the law passes. It will not be retroactive for all sex offenders."

Furthermore, the new green plates won't be required for all new sex offenders. The proposed bill, for instance, excludes offenses like public exposure. Habitual flashers get to keep their regular plates just like the regular guys.

Critics also warn that the fluorescent-green plates will incite vigilante violence, not only against sex offenders who've served their time but also against offenders' family members who are driving around in vehicles with the special plates.

"I worry about casting the Scarlet A, instead of on Hester Prynne, around Hester Prynne's family," advises Republican Bill Seitz, majority whip in Ohio's House of Representatives and the sponsor in 2003 of a bill that was enacted into law that barred sex offenders in Ohio from living within 1,000 feet of schools.

Another opponent of the bill, Conrad Goode, argues that the state shouldn't continue to penalize people after they've paid for their crimes. "They've done their time," says Goode, a coordinator at a Salvation Army halfway house in Dayton who has worked as a parole officer with sex offenders. "They've done their after-care. They have to register where they live. That's enough."

Others warn that the green plate solution totally misses the mark when it comes to targeting child molesters. Rather than being the victims of unknown motorists, the majority of children in these cases are victimized by people they know and trust -- by neighbors, teachers, clergymen and relatives.

For some, the whole thing seems too much like Hitler's mandatory pink triangles and the yellow Star of David.

In other license plate news from Ohio, the state's Bureau of Motor Vehicles has declared a woman's 10-year-old personalized plate to be obscene. Pat Niple, 74 years old, owned the Northwood Tree Farm with her late husband. State officials have advised Mrs. Niple that her license plate, NWTF, an abbreviation for the business, is an acronym that means something else nowadays to young people.

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About the Author
Ralph R. Reiland is the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise and an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.