All Robert G. Barbour wanted were personalized license plates for his Datsun Z.
Seven years and 2,500 illegal parking notices later, he still wonders how two 6-by-12-inch plates could have caused him so much trouble.
This is what happened:
It was a spring day in 1979 that Barbour, a West Los Angeles sailing enthusiast and manufacturer of marine hardware and industrial components, put in a request for personalized plates that would read either "SAILING" or "BOATING." Although the California Department of Motor Vehicles form provided space for a third choice, he said he had none--and so he wrote "NO PLATE" on that line.
And "NO PLATE" is exactly what his new plates read.
Then Warnings Began
"At first, I was angry that they would mess it up and not understand what I meant," said Barbour, 39. "But then I realized how original the plates were."
It was four weeks later that Barbour received a notice from the San Francisco Municipal Court warning him that an illegal parking fine was past due.
"I knew I hadn't been up there," recalled Barbour, "so I called. I asked them to look at the ticket and describe the car. Of course, it was some other car."
A few days later, dozens of overdue notices began arriving from all over the state. That's when Barbour says he realized that law enforcement officers were writing "no plate" on citations for illegally parked vehicles without license plates.
He said the information was then entered into a Department of Motor Vehicles computer--and if the fine remained unpaid, the computer would come up with Barbour's name and address.
In the six or seven months that followed, Barbour estimates he received about 2,500 such notices. The largest percentage came from the San Francisco area; the smallest from Los Angeles.
"I had written the DMV two or three times to tell them this is a real problem. They said, 'Just change your plates.' " But by that time, said Barbour, "I had really grown to like my plates. I wanted to keep them and let the DMV adjust their procedures a little bit. I guess it has something to do with the way I am."
Launched Paper Campaign
Determined to untangle the bureaucratic mess he found himself in, Barbour decided to write a form letter to explain the NO PLATE situation. Whenever he received a notice in the mail, he'd send the letter. In most cases, he received a reply saying the matter was closed.
In a few cases, however, Barbour said he was requested to appear before a judge to explain.
"Then," said Barbour, "I would write another letter telling them, 'No, it's your mistake; look at the ticket and look at the description of the car.' "
He never had to show up in court.
Barbour, who is married and the father of two children, said his secretary helped mail the form letters and postage over the years has added up to about $300 or $400.
"What I'm really afraid of is that someday, someone with the same kind of car I have, without a license plate, will end up getting a ticket. Then I won't be able to prove it wasn't me."
Finally, about two years after the whole situation began, the DMV issued a notice to law-enforcement agencies requesting they use the word, "none" instead of "no plate" on citations, Barbour said.
"As soon as they did that, the tickets slowed down to a real light trickle. For the last couple of years, I haven't gotten more than five or six tickets a month." He attributes those to officers and clerks unfamiliar with current procedure.
Said Gary Taulbee, a systems coordinator with the San Francisco Municipal Court traffic division: "They probably got through because it was thought that no one would be crazy enough to have plates that said NO PLATE. We're just hoping that no one will come up with plates that say NONE."
Meanwhile, Barbour has become something of a celebrity with traffic officers around town. When he was stopped 10 months ago, Barbour said he was worried because his registration wasn't current.
"The officer said he didn't really care about that," Barbour recalled. "He had heard about my car and license plates and just wanted to have his picture taken next to them. He brought out a camera from his patrol car and I took the picture for him."
So now, after living with his plates for seven years, Barbour regards them with a mixture of fondness and amusement.
"Even now, when people see them, I get a reaction. Some get mad. One man, walking in a crosswalk yelled, 'What kind of stupid plates are those? Either they're plates or they're not plates. You can't have a plate that says NO PLATE.' Then he pounded on my car.
"Still other people think they're great because they're so unusual. And that's what I like about my plates," Barbour said with a smile.
"They're unique--they're originals."