Riverside County Barristers

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Barristers Column — May 2024

By David Rivera

Attorney David Rivera

David Rivera

How a Beagle Danced His Way onto Cal. License Plates

He's clever, funny, loyal, exceedingly imaginative, down-to-earth, yet brazen. At times he's frustrating and impertinent—but always beloved. Just ask Woodstock, his master Charlie Brown, or the 6-in-every-10 people who are self-proclaimed Peanuts fans. Snoopy is a cultural icon. 

Even so, it took more than admiration and popularity to land Snoopy on California license plates. This article reviews the California Vehicle Code sections that allow for special interest license plates, provides examples of special interest license plate programs, and—on the eve of National Pet Month (May)—explains how Snoopy became an ambassador and fundraising beacon for California museums.

I. Legislative Authority for Special Interest License Plates

A. Basic Structure

The California Vehicle Code establishes the authority to launch special interest license plate programs. These programs amount to sponsorship mechanisms that enable vehicle registrants to subsidize specific state agencies, public institutions, and charitable causes by purchasing specialized license plates. Registrants pay an increased fee knowing they are contributing to public programs that are tied to a particular plate. To incentivize purchases, specialized plates are embellished with distinctive designs and decorative images that convey DMV-sanctioned messages.

Special interest license plates have been around for decades, but the statutory framework has evolved over time. Today, an amended legacy program coexists with a modern program. The legacy program is the Special Interest License Plate (SILP) program, which once allowed private organizations to participate in the sponsorship mechanism. Since 2007, the DMV has been prohibited from accepting new SILP program applications, but it continues to issue license plates produced under preexisting SILP programs.

The modern program is the Specialized License Plate (SLP) program, which is now only open to "state agencies"; private organizations cannot participate. This change prevents the DMV from inadvertently venturing into content-based restrictions of private speech whenever it rejects a privately proposed specialized license plate on the basis of its design (i.e., message). It does not prevent private organizations and individuals from lobbying state agencies to directly sponsor novel plates in their own right. Regardless, specialized plates issued under SLP must now publicize or promote a state agency, its mission, work, or official policy.  

B. Threshold Level of Public Interest; Prepaid Fees

A minimum level of interest must be demonstrated in the proposed license plate program before the DMV will begin plate production. The original SILP program established a low threshold that invited a rash of applications. It was a bit of a free-for-all, resulting in inconsistent and sometimes controversial messaging. The State Legislature stepped in.

Today, 7,500 unique vehicle registrants must enroll in a program within 12 months of the DMV approving the sponsoring agency's initial application. A 12-month extension is available upon request, extending the enrollment period to 24 months total. Moreover, if the number of valid and outstanding specialized plates in any greenlit program ever falls below 7,500, the DMV may no longer issue or replace those plates, subject to certain contingencies.  

Vehicle registrants must prepay the required SLP fee to complete their program enrollment. The prepaid fee can vary, but for most specialized plates the cost of initial issuance and renewal is $50.00 and $40.00, respectively. Requests for personalized registration numbers generally double these fee amounts.

The fees generated from 7,500 plates ensure that there are sufficient funds to reimburse the DMV for producing a new plate. Computer programming, not plate production, accounts for most of the DMV's costs. Plate proposals that fall short of the 7,500 threshold would be a cost burden to the DMV and would fail to raise additional revenue for the state.  

C. Design Criteria

Initially, specialized plates under the legacy program permitted full-plate graphic designs. In other words, the entire plate was once an art canvas. This is no longer the case for newer plates designs. An SLP design, decal, or descriptive message must be situated to the left of, or underneath, the plate registration number, not to exceed two inches by three inches on the left, or five-eighths of an inch underneath.

II. Example Programs

A. Current Production Plates

There are 15 special interest license plates available for purchase. The two most successful programs are the Legacy plate and the Kids' plate.  

The "California 1960s Legacy" special interest license plate went into production in 2015. It replicates the black background and yellow lettering found on standard plates issued by the DMV from 1965 through 1968. Plate revenue benefits state environmental projects, including the acquisition, preservation, and restoration of natural areas or ecological reserves. In fiscal year 2020–2021, this program generated an additional $39.4 million for the California Environmental Protection Program.  

The "Have a Heart, Be a Star, Help Our Kids" special interest license plate dates to 1992. Revenue from these Kids' plates—which contain an embossed heart, hand, star, or plus sign—is deposited into the Child Health and Safety Fund (CHSF) to address unintentional childhood injuries, child abuse, and childcare licensing and inspection. In fiscal year 2020–2021, this program brought in $3.5 million for the CHSF.  

B. Unsuccessful Plate Proposals

Not all special interest license plate proposals are successful. One such proposed program is the legislatively-sponsored Salton Sea program. Upon production, plate revenue was to have been deposited in the Salton Sea Restoration Account for the restoration of the Salton Sea. However, even after a 12-month extension, the program received a mere 151 enrollments of the required 7,500. The Salton Sea program is now defunct.

C. Outstanding Plate Proposals

In 2022, the California National Resource Agency (CNRA) marketed SLP programs to several professional sports organizations. That effort yielded a promising license plate deal with the San Francisco 49ers. If the 49ers plate is ever produced, revenue will help CNRA manage California's natural resources and expand access to outdoor recreational spaces across the state. The 49ers program was introduced in May 2022. As of January 9, 2024, only 2,700 people had enrolled over an extended 20-month period. With the deadline one month away, the program's fate looms.  

III. California Museums (Snoopy) Plate

A. Why Snoopy?

Snoopy isn't just famous, he's world famous—a world famous author, astronaut, attorney, painter, surgeon, chef, and tennis player. He's a World War I flying ace and even lounges about as "Joe Cool," the college student. These are just a handful of the personas that this introspective pup has adopted. Snoopy's affinity for new experiences and learning is mirrored in the very purpose of museums. 

Museums are repositories of knowledge. They preserve and advance the arts, humanities, culture, education, leadership, science, literature, and more. They broaden horizons. And Snoopy blazes a trail in this regard. Hello there Snoopy, fitting museum representative and fundraiser!

Jeanne Schulz, widow of Peanuts and Snoopy creator Charles Schulz, was no passive party in promoting Snoopy as an ambassador for learning, specifically in the context of museums. In 2003, she and fellow copyright holder, Peanuts Worldwide, granted the California Association of Museums (CAM) (a private organization) a royalty-free license to use Snoopy's image (doing his happy dance!) in an SLP program for the benefit of museums. The grant stemmed from Mrs. Schulz' experiences while founding the Charles M. Schulz Museum a year prior. During that process, she realized that all museums need increased funding.  

B. (Joe) Cool! That Seemed Easy Enough

Even Snoopy couldn't dance onto license plates easily. Mrs. Schulz' generous offer coincided with several aforementioned material changes to the special interest license plate program. Private organizations could no longer be the sole program sponsor; that entitlement was now limited to state entities. Plate designs could no longer feature full-plate graphics, leading to less distinctive designs and decreased public interest. And at least 7,500 unique vehicle registrants were required to enroll within 12 months, a challenging hurdle. Because of these deterrents, the DMV issued no specialized license plates under programs originating during the period 2003 through 2010.  

Still, the potential of a Snoopy-adorned license plate was not to be ignored. CAM got to work, securing a donation from a local foundation to fund early planning and development. Next, a San Francisco advertising agency assisted with pro bono messaging and the identification of marketing channels. CAM then compiled an email list 11,000 people strong, drawn from museum friends and Snoopy fans. The pitch: support the cause, display your fandom. CAM also sought out the necessary state agency relationship. Eventually, CAM found a partner in the California Cultural and Historical Endowment (CCHE) that had been established within the California State Library.

Together, CCHE/CAM solicited the backing of Assemblymember Toni Atkins, a Snoopy-lover who represented the San Diego-based 78th District. Assemblymember Atkins sponsored Assembly Bill (A.B.) 482, which became effective on January 1, 2014. A.B. 482 amended the California Education Code to authorize CCHE to create a grant program, the Museum Grant Program (MGP), and to then compel CCHE's sponsorship of an SLP program for the purpose of using enrollment fees to fund MGP.  

In January 2014, pursuant to A.B. 482, CCHE/CAM sponsored the Snoopy SLP program. Enrollments leapt to 3,000 out of the gate, buoyed by a press conference attended by all major news networks. Thereafter, enrollments slowed, settling in at 5,000 after 1 year. CCHE/CAM requested a one-year extension from the DMV.

C. Happiness Is a Warm Puppy

To generate fresh publicity and interest in the Snoopy program, CCHE/CAM created the "Beagle Backer" marketing program. More than 60 California museums offered the first 7,500 enrollees free or discounted admission for a year, but only if 7,500 enrollments were actually reached. Additionally, CCHE/CAM wrangled free ad space from major theater chains to run short public service announcements immediately prior to showings of a new movie arrival—The Peanuts Movie.  

On December 1, 2015, with 1 month remaining in the enrollment period, the Snoopy SLP program was 600 enrollments shy of success. An anonymous angel underwrote the cost of those 600 enrollments, which all became registered within 6 hours. Then, even more enrollees joined the bandwagon. On the final day of the enrollment period, CCHE/CAM handed the DMV more than 9,000 enrollments.

The world's most charming beagle began appearing on California license plates in 2016.  

IV. Summary

The Snoopy license plate exists because some wonderful people forced the stars to align. Jeanne Schulz granted the California Association of Museums (CAM) a license to use Snoopy in a Specialized License Plate (SLP) program. CAM partnered with a state agency in the California Cultural and Historical Endowment (CCHE) to sponsor the program (as is now legally required of a private organization). Not only did CCHE/CAM require a 12-month extension, they (seemingly) needed an angel donor to push enrollments past the 7,500 threshold. They did it. With the Snoopy license plate now in production, program revenue will be deposited in the CCHE Fund to fund MGP, to the benefit of California museums.

None of this would have taken shape if Snoopy wasn't such a great ambassador for California museums. He is! He personifies a broadening of horizons, new experiences, and lifelong learning. He has left his pawprints on popular culture. Now, even California license plates know his touch. 

Time for a happy dance!


Upcoming Events

The Ruck Challenge 5K. May 4, 8:00 a.m.—noon (check-in begins at 6:30 a.m.). Join us as we tackle The Ruck Challenge 5K in aid of veterans. The Ruck Challenge, operated by Reaching New Heights Foundation, was born out of Riverside County Veteran’s Court to increase awareness about rehabilitative services for veterans and to raise funds in support of veterans suffering from the invisible wounds of war. See https://RCBABarristersRuck5K.eventbrite.com for registration instructions.

5th Annual Judicial Reception. May 16, 5:00–7:30 p.m. at Riverside City Hall Grier Pavilion. Barristers welcomes Barristers members, non-Barristers, seasoned attorneys, legal support staff, students, bench members, and others to a social reception as we honor our Attorney and Judge of the Year. Register at https://RCBABarristersJR.eventbrite.com.

New Attorney Academy (NAA) Graduation Celebration. May 17, 2:15 p.m. at Lake Alice Trading Co. Join us for happy hour as we congratulate this year’s NAA class on its successful completion of the program immediately after the conclusion of its last day. If you can’t make the early start time, pop on over whenever you wrap up your Friday. We’ll be there through the evening.

Wine Tasting in Temecula Valley through Grapeline Wine Tours. June 8, 10:15 a.m.–4:30 p.m. That’s right! We’re hitting Temecula for wine tasting to mark the near-end of our 2023–2024 term. The idea for this event began at least three years ago and it’s finally here! Enjoy pick-up and drop-off in downtown Riverside via chartered bus, with a possible stop in Old Town Temecula for those who would like to join the party from there. Register at https://RCBABarristersWineTour.eventbrite.com.

ELECTIONS! June 20, 5:30 p.m. at the Mission Inn’s Presidential Lounge. Active Barristers members are encouraged to run for office! The success of Barristers is dependent not only on our members’ active participation, but on the leadership of our board. Your vote counts! Would you like to serve on the Barristers Board 2024–2025, or do you know someone who would be a great fit? Contact us at barristers@riversidecountybar.com for nominations information. Nominations are due on or before May 17. 

If you have any suggestions as to possible events or activities, or comments on Barristers affairs, please email us at barristers@riversidecountybar.com.

Contact me directly by email at drivera@alumni.nd.edu, or by text or phone call at ‭(909) 844-7397. If you are just discovering Barristers and would like to attend one of our events, I am more than happy to meet you at the door and introduce you to our wonderful group. Truly. I look forward to hearing from you!‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

David P. Rivera is a solo practitioner of business law in Highland. He is the President of the Riverside County Barristers Association, the Treasurer of the Hispanic Bar Association of the Inland Empire, the Treasurer of the Asian Pacific American Lawyers of the Inland Empire, and a member of the RCBA Bar Publications Committee.

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