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AGLO 1974 No. 8 - January 18, 1974
AGO Opinion Header Image
Slade Gorton | 1969-1980 | Attorney General of Washington

MOTOR VEHICLES ‑- LICENSE PLATES ‑- FEES ‑- RENEWAL OF PERSONALIZED LICENSE PLATES

If a motor vehicle owner acquired personalized license plates under RCW 46.16.355 prior to the effective date of chapter 200, Laws of 1973, 1st Ex. Sess., such an owner is now required by the provisions of § 7 of this new act to pay an annual renewal fee of $20.00 to retain those previously issued license plates.

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                                                                 January 18, 1974

Honorable James P. Kuehnle
State Representative, 4th District
Legislative Building
Olympia, Washington 98504                                                                                                                 Cite as:  AGLO 1974 No. 8

Dear Sir:

            By recent letter you have requested our opinion on a question which we paraphrase as follows:

            If a motor vehicle owner acquired personalized license plates under RCW 46.16.355 prior to the effective date of chapter 200, Laws of 1973, 1st Ex. Sess. (Referendum Bill No. 33), is such an owner now required by the provisions of § 7 of this new act to pay an annual renewal fee of $20.00 to retain those previously issued license plates?

            We answer this question in the affirmative.

                                                                     ANALYSIS

            In order lawfully to operate a passenger motor vehicle on the public highways of this state, a Washington resident must have obtained and have in full force and effect a current state vehicle license.  Prior to the ratification of chapter 200, Laws of 1973, 1st Ex. Sess. (Referendum Bill No. 33), last November, all such license plates were required to bear an assigned registration designation consisting of three letters and three numbers.  However, persons were permitted to obtain so-called "personalized" license plates consistent with this format pursuant to the following provisions of RCW 46.16.355:

            "Every person who desires a license plate containing his initials or any other combination of letters or numbers, that is consistent with the existing format of three letters and three numbers as prescribed by the director of motor vehicles, may apply to the director for such license plates, and if the director  [[Orig. Op. Page 2]] is satisfied that such license plates as requested would be reasonable and proper and would not be a duplication of any other valid license plates, may receive in lieu of regular motor vehicle license plates similar plates bearing the letters or numbers, or combination thereof requested.  No combination shall be issued with fewer than six letters and numbers.

            "Original applicants shall be issued temporary license plates which will serve until such a time as the 'personalized plates' can be manufactured by the Washington state prison industries, and processed by the department of motor vehicles.  The temporary license plates shall be surrendered to the department at the time the 'personalized plates' are issued.  Any previously issued license plates assigned to the vehicle involved must be surrendered to the department at the time of issuance of the 'personalized plates'.

            "Each time that 'personalized plates' are transferred from one vehicle to another, by the owner, a special transfer fee of five dollars shall be collected by the department from that owner.  Such special fee shall be deposited in the motor vehicle fund.

            "In addition to the annual license fee collected under chapter 46.16 RCW and chapter 82.44 RCW, there shall be collected from each applicant for such special license plates an additional license fee of thirty dollars in the case of personalized plates."

            It is particularly to be noted in reading this statute that while an initial added license fee of $30.00 was required to obtain these special license plates, no ensuing annual renewal fees were required ‑ over and above that provided for under chapters 46.16 and 82.44 RCW.  Accord, the explanation of the then existing law which was prepared by this office pursuant to RCW 29.81.020 and appeared in the 1972 official voters' pamphlet in conjunction with Referendum Bill No. 33 as follows:

             [[Orig. Op. Page 3]]

            "In order to obtain or retain such license plates, the applicant is required to pay, in addition to the regular registration fees and any other fees and taxes required to be paid upon registration of his vehicle, an additional one time fee of thirty dollars. . . ."

            By way of contrast, under the heading "Effect of Referendum Bill 33 if approved into Law," we explained the requistites of that then pending ballot proposition with respect to personalized license plates as follows:

            "In order to obtain or retain such license plates, a person would be required to pay, in addition to the regular registration fee and any other fees and taxes required to be paid upon registration of his vehicle, an additional fee of thirty dollars upon its initial registration and a fee of twenty dollars upon each annual renewal of such registration. . . ."

            We further noted the fact in this explanation that Referendum Bill 33, if approved,

            ". . . would repeal the existing authorization for personalized vehicle license plates as above described and would, instead, authorize personalized license plates consisting entirely of letters or of numbers, or of any combination thereof, so long as the total number of symbols (letters and/or numbers) is not less than two nor more than six. . . ."

            The voters approved the measure at the November 6, 1973, general election, in accordance with Article II, § 1 (Amendment 7) of our state Constitution.  As chapter 200, Laws of 1973, 1st Ex. Sess., it took effect on the thirtieth day after that election, replacing RCW 46.16.355, supra, in accordance with the express repealer contained in § 13 thereof.

            In considering the impact of this new law upon the renewal of personalized license plates originally issued under the prior law we turn, first, to the definition of personalized licenses which appears in  [[Orig. Op. Page 4]] § 2 of the new law as follows:

            "Personalized license plates, as used in this chapter, means license plates that have displayed upon them the registration number assigned to the passenger motor vehicle for which such registration number was issued in a combination of letters or numbers, or both, requested by the owner of the vehicle."

            Next, we note, the language of § 3 of the referendum bill which provides that:

            "Any person who is the registered owner of a passenger motor vehicle registered with the department or who makes application for an original registration of a passenger motor vehicle or renewal registration of a passenger motor vehicle may, upon payment of the fee prescribed in section 7 of this 1973 amendatory act, apply to the department for personalized license plates, in the manner described in section 6 of this 1973 amendatory act, which plates shall be affixed to the passenger motor vehicle for which registration is sought in lieu of the regular license plates."

            Finally, we note §§ 6 and 7 of the new law, which are referred to in § 3,supra, and read, respectively, as follows:

            Section 6:

            "An applicant for issuance of personalized license plates or renewal of such plates in the subsequent year pursuant to this chapter shall file an application therefor in such form and by such date as the department may require, indicating thereon the combination of letters or numbers, or both, requested as a vehicle license plate number.  There shall be no duplication or conflict with existing or projected vehicle license plate series or other numbering systems for records kept by the department, and the department may refuse to issue any combination of letters or numbers, or both, that may carry connotations offensive to  [[Orig. Op. Page 5]] good taste and decency or which would be misleading or a duplication of license plates provided for in chapter 46.16 RCW."

            Section 7:

            "In addition to the regular registration fee, and any other fees and taxes required to be paid upon registration, the applicant shall be charged a fee of thirty dollars.  In addition to the regular renewal fee, and in addition to any other fees and taxes required to be paid, the applicant for a renewal of such plates shall be charged an additional fee of twenty dollars."

            In reading these several provisions of the new law the point that it is critical to understand is that the term "personalized license plates" is so defined in § 2,supra, as to include not only those plates issued after its effective date but those issued before, as well, that have displayed upon them

            ". . . the registration number assigned to the passenger motor vehicle for which such registration number was issued in a combination of letters or numbers, or both, requested by the owner of the vehicle."

            Clearly, this definition covers such plates as have previously been issued under the authority of RCW 46.16.355, supra, as well as those later issued under the new law which replaced that statute ‑ chapter 200 (Referendum Bill 33), supra.  Therefore it follows, in direct answer to your question, that if the holder of those pre‑1973 personalized license plates now desires to retain them ‑ and with them the right of transferability granted by § 8 of the new law1/ in place of the similar right which previously existed under the old one before its repeal ‑ he is now required by § 7 thereof to  [[Orig. Op. Page 6]] pay an annual renewal fee of $20.00.

            To this we would only add a notation to the effect that fees such as these, being assessed under the taxing power of the state,2/ may be altered under the legislative authority of the state and are not subject to principles of contract law.  Accord,Everett v. Adamson, 106 Wash. 355, 180 Pac. 144 (1919); and Tacoma v. State Tax Commission, 177 Wash. 604, 33 P.2d 899 (1934).

            We trust the foregoing will be of assistance to you.

Very truly yours,

SLADE GORTON
Attorney General

RUSSELL T. OLIVER
Assistant Attorney General

                                                         ***   FOOTNOTES   ***

1/Section 8, chapter 200, supra, provides that:

            "Whenver any person who has been issued personalized license plates applies to the department for transfer of such plates to a subsequently acquired passenger motor vehicle, a transfer fee of five dollars shall be charged in addition to all other appropriate fees.  Such transfer fees shall be deposited in the motor vehicle fund."

2/Wash. Const., Article VII, § 1 (Amendment 14).

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