When Honolulu officials more than a year ago first asked Edward Odquina to return a personalized license plate the officials decided they never should have issued, it seemed like a routine matter. Normally, people simply return erroneously issued automobile plates upon request, said Ian Scheuring, a spokesman for Mayor Rick Blangiardi.

But Odquina, whose plate bears the message “FCKBLM,” has refused or ignored the city’s repeated requests to turn over the plate. The city’s Customer Services Department, which issues plates, won’t disclose its next steps, but legal action appears imminent.

“They have never been in some kind of protracted battle, the likes of which escalated to seeking legal recourse,” Scheuring said. “It’s just not something we have a playbook for. It’s not something we have to deal with on a regular basis.”

For his part, Odquina isn’t saying much. Calls made to a phone number recently listed as belonging to Odquina were not returned. No one answered the door at Odquina’s last known address in Hawaii Kai. And there was no response to a letter requesting comment left at the door of the apartment.

Honolulu Hale interior view.
Honolulu Hale is going after a recalcitrant motorist who has refused to turn over a license plate deemed offensive and racist. But how far can the city go? Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Changed Policies And Procedures

One thing the Odquina debacle has underscored is that Honolulu’s previous process for weeding out offensive license plates was full of holes. The Odquina incident has led the city to update its internal controls.

The city issued 5,394 personalized plates, often called vanity plates, in 2021, Scheuring said. The first step in the review process was and still is done by an automated system into which people type the message they want on their plate, up to six letters. The system says whether that plate is available, already being used or unavailable because it’s considered offensive.

An anecdotal survey of that system conducted by Civil Beat shows just how arbitrary it can be when deciding what to approve and reject. While the system rejected some words as offensive, it often approved similar words or said they were already in use.

For instance, while “FKNFKA” and “FUCKAH” were denied as offensive, “PHUKAS” and “FCUKYU” were fine, according to the system. While “KILLER” was out, “KILLAH” was fine — and already in use, the system said. Multiple variations of the N-word were approved and available. And while the system indicated Odquina couldn’t replace his FCKBLM plate with one saying “FCKHNL,” it said it would be OK to get a plate saying “FKHNL.”

Previously, Scheuring said, after the computerized review was done, a customer could order the plate if available, and just one worker would do a final review before issuing the plate. There was no official policy for how the reviewer would deal with messages that were questionable, he said. But he said until Odquina’s matter, it had never been an issue to reclaim a plate, which meant the reviewer was more inclined to approve a questionable plate and see if the public objected rather than deny the application.

PHUKAS license plate
While Honolulu’s automated screening program for personalized license plates routinely weeds out offensive words including letters like “fck,” other words can slip through the system. City and County of Honolulu

But all that has changed. Now, after passing the initial computer screening, each application must pass through a gauntlet of three human reviewers, Scheuring said. If any reviewer raises a concern, the matter is sent to the director or deputy director of the department for a final determination.

Accordingly, he said, none of the messages approved by the system in Civil Beat’s review would make it through the new process.

“Even though you might have gotten a couple through the online system, we’ve increased the number of eyeballs by 200%,” he said.

Honolulu City Council member Andria Tupola speaks during council meeting held at Honolulu Hale.
Honolulu City Council member Andria Tupola has sponsored a bill allowing city attorneys a seek a court order against the owner of a license plate that carries the message “FCKBLM.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

It’s not clear what are the next steps for reclaiming Odquina’s license plate. In a resolution passed last month authorizing Honolulu’s lawyers to take legal action against Odquina, the council called the plates “offensive, publicly objectionable, and has (sic) received local and national media attention and criticism.”

The Department of Customer Services had recalled the plates by letter dated July 6, 2021, the council noted. And the Honolulu city attorney, known as the Corporation Counsel, had demanded return of the plates by letter dated June 30, 2022.

City Council member Andria Tupola, who sponsored the resolution, said in an interview that she was not sure what the Corporation Counsel would do next. But she said if the city’s lawyers could get a judge to call Odquina before the court, it would be hard for Odquina to ignore that, as he has ignored letters from city officials.

“Obviously if you don’t show up for court, they can put a warrant out for your arrest,” she said.

For its part, the Corporation Counsel declined to reveal how things play out if Odquina continues to defy government requests.

“The Resolution before City Council seeks the Council’s authority for the Corporation Counsel to file suit on behalf of the Department of Customer Services to seek a court order requiring the return of the license plates to the City,” the office said in a statement. “The license plates at issue have expired and have been determined to be offensive based on numerous complaints from the public. The court order is necessary as the license plate holder has not responded to several requests from CSD to return the license plates.”

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