In the opening of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel The Scarlet Letter, a young woman who has been convicted of adultery is led through the streets of colonial Salem, a scarlet letter "A" pinned to her chest. The townspeople watch approvingly, gossiping and enjoying her humiliation.
Fast forward to January 1, 2004….Encouraged by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Ohio legislature enacted a new law requiring any person convicted of drunk driving to display special bright yellow license plates with bright red numbers and letters on any vehicles they own or drive.
The law made no exception for other members of the family who drove the vehicles. The wife who drove the kids to a soccer game did so with the scarlet letters branded on the front and back of her car.
What have become known as "scarlet letter plates" or "shame plates" have created other consequences as well:
Ever since I’ve put the yellow plates on my car I have gotten pulled over on the way to work/school at least a dozen times just for "suspicion", and my car has been damaged by rocks and bricks that have been thrown at my car. I’ve filed police reports for the incidents in which my car was damaged and nothing has been done to resolve the problem. My insurance pays for the damage but I still have a $500 deductible which I’ve had to pay for twice now. I’m tired of people that say I "deserve" it because I have a DUI. I didn’t kill anyone, I didn’t hurt anyone, no cars were hit and nothing was damaged. I don’t deserve to be pulled over today for something that happened months ago. I don’t deserve to have rocks and bricks thrown at my car. I don’t deserve to be publicly humiliated…
The new law initially applied to all individuals convicted of DUI. However, the inclusion of first-time offenders caused widespread criticism and the law was later amended to apply only to multiple offenders and first offenders with blood alcohol levels of .17% or higher.
Ohio isn’t the only state requiring "shame" plates for those convicted of DUI. Minnesota and Georgia also issue the plates, but ones not as dramatically different as those issued by Ohio. Urged on by MADD, California, Virginia and other states have considered legislation authorizing them — including Arizona, where a bill requiring fluorescent green plates made it to the floor of the State Senate in 2004.