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'Choose Life' plates hit the road despite lawsuit

By SHELBY OPPEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 12, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Drivers in northwest Florida began purchasing the controversial "Choose Life" state license plates Friday, more than a year after lawmakers approved their sale.

The license plates, still facing a legal challenge by abortion rights supporters, nonetheless went on sale in Leon, Jefferson, Gadsden, Wakulla and Taylor counties Friday.

The plates, which cost $20 in addition to the usual tag fees, are being delivered to tax collectors' offices in other counties next week and should be available as early as Monday in some areas, said Fred Dickinson, executive director of the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. A total of 15,000 plates will be distributed statewide.

A lawsuit seeking to block sales of the plates is pending in Leon County Circuit Court. Former Democratic state Rep. Barry Silver, an attorney representing the National Organization for Women, said he plans next week to seek an injunction barring further sales.

"It's highly irresponsible for the state of Florida to begin selling these license plates at this time. We still haven't had an opportunity to present our arguments to a court," Silver said.

Lawmakers approved the "Choose Life" license plate during the 1999 legislative session. State Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, was a chief sponsor. Proceeds from sales of the plates will go to not-for-profit agencies that serve pregnant women who plan to place their babies for adoption.

Opponents say the plates -- bright yellow with child-like drawings of two children's faces -- are a state-sanctioned political statement against abortion.

"This motto -- choose life -- has nothing to do with furthering adoption . . . the only adoption they're interested in is the adoption of a religious slogan by the state of Florida," Silver said.

The "Choose Life" license plate is Florida's 51st specialty plate, Dickinson said, and the last one to avoid the state's new, tougher standards for specialty plate approval. An applicant for the 52nd specialty plate must come up with a $60,000 application fee and 15,000 potential customers who pledge to buy it, Dickinson said.

Inmates at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford manufactured the plates. Of the 15,000 to be distributed statewide, 800 will be delivered each to Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties will receive an initial shipment of 100 plates each.

"From the input we have had, the public has been out there waiting for these," said Dickinson, adding that the state will produce more plates if supplies dwindle.

Several plates were bought Friday in Leon County, Dickinson said.

The "Choose Life" license plate has been on a legal journey since December, when Silver filed a lawsuit in Palm Beach County Circuit Court seeking to block sales.

Private attorneys representing the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles argued for the case to be transferred to Leon County, where the plates were originally distributed. In June, the 4th District Court of Appeal agreed.

Then, Silver again sought to block sales of the plates through Palm Beach County Circuit Court, said Rick Polston, a private attorney representing the state. Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Lucy Chernow Brown ruled Tuesday that Silver's motion must be heard in Leon County, where the entire case had been moved in June.

A hearing in the case has not been set, nor has Silver sought to block sales of the plates through Leon County Circuit Court, Polston said. Silver said Friday that he will seek an injunction next week.

Silver expressed doubt that Brown's ruling Tuesday meant the state could proceed with sales of the plates. He said the case had not even been assigned to a judge in Leon County. "The reason why the state is able to distribute the plates is because there's no order prohibiting their sale," Polston said.

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