Special license plates to honor her late husband put AIDS crusader in a new predicament.


It began as a simple gesture by a grieving woman to honor her late husband. But Cheree Johnson's decision to post END HIV license plates on her van in memory of her husband, Reuel, who died of AIDS in 1995, has created problem after problem for the Sacramento woman.

The latest crisis occurred on Sunday, when the vanity plates prompted a Sacramento police officer to wrongly handcuff and detain Johnson as a suspected car thief. Neither the police nor the California Department of Motor Vehicles can explain exactly what led to the predicament.


"It's unbelievable," Johnson said Monday. "These plates are notorious!"

Johnson first obtained the car tags nearly a decade ago, shortly after her husband's death. At a time when public stigma about AIDS was high, the DMV was reluctant to allow people to put the acronym for the disease or the virus responsible for it on license plates. The agency initially denied Johnson's application, then reversed itself. Three years later, the DMV reversed itself again and began recalling plates with AIDS and HIV references, citing public complaints about them.

Johnson, who at the time was actively involved with several groups devoted to helping people with AIDS, fought the agency. The DMV relented after she went public with her story.

But the plates, it seemed, were cursed.

In 2000, someone stole her blue 1985 Volks wagen van. The vehicle, and the vanity plates, were never found.

So Johnson bought another van, a gray 1987 model. She applied for replacement END HIV plates. But the DMV told her, she said, that she had to wait three years to obtain them. After that, the END HIV message would drop off of DMV records as a stolen plate, the agency informed her.

Johnson was upset. But she complied, and during that period displayed tags that read I WILL W8.

After three years, Johnson again asked the DMV to reissue the END HIV plates. Finally, in December 2003, the DMV came through. Johnson was thrilled. She attached the tags to her van and went on her merry way.

Until Sunday.

That afternoon, after making a stop at a friend's garage sale on her way to a midtown Starbucks, Johnson found herself handcuffed in the back of a police car. A Volkswagen van with END HIV license plates had been identified as a stolen vehicle, an officer with the Sacramento Police Department told her.

"He pulled up behind me, lights flashing, and I didn't think anything of it at first," Johnson said. "Then he told me to put my hands behind my back." Her friends watched in horror as the officer snapped on the cuffs and escorted her to his cruiser.

"It was really hot back there," she said. "Plus, it was embarrassing."


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