Uh Oh, HTO!
HTO is short for Habitual Traffic Offender - a designation applied to drivers by the Department of Licensing (DOL). Designed to keep bad drivers off the road, its effect is to keep anyone designated as HTO from driving at any time for any reason, from a minimum of 4 years to a maximum of 7 years.
Who Can Be Designated HTO?Under Washington law, a driver is a HTO if ANY of the following occur within 5 years:
A) The driver accumulates 3 or more criminal traffic convictions from a list of 8 specific offenses. These offenses are:
1. Vehicular homicide;
2. Vehicular assault;
4. Physical Control;
5. Driving While License Suspended in the Second Degree;
6. Hit and Run - Attended Vehicle;
7. Reckless Driving;
8. Attempting to Flee or Elude a Police Officer.
B) The driver accumulates 20 or more traffic infractions.
C) The driver accumulates a combination of 20 or more traffic infractions and criminal traffic convictions described above.
The 5 year period is a rolling period that starts on the date of the first conviction. This means that the DOL is constantly checking driving records to see if the above requirements are met. The law does provide some exceptions regarding how convictions / committed findings (the civil infraction equivalent of a guilty plea) are counted. For example, multiple offenses on the first occasion will be treated as one offense if they occurred within a 6 hour period. Another is that you can't be considered a habitual offender under the 20 violation section of the law unless at least 3 convictions have occurred within 365 days immediately preceding the last conviction.
How Do Drivers Get Designated as a HTO?When a driver pleads guilty to a criminal traffic offense or sends payment for a traffic infraction (excluding camera and parking tickets), Washington courts send records of the guilty plea or committed finding to the DOL, which then places the infraction on the driver's record. Infractions typically stay on the driver's record for 5 years from the date of committed finding, while criminal traffic offenses usually stay on longer. Don't just pay off your tickets! At the very least, talk to an attorney if traffic tickets have become somewhat routine for you.
Criminal Consequences of Driving While HTOAnyone who is caught driving while designated as a Habitual Traffic Offender will be charged with Driving While License Suspended in the First Degree (DWLS-1). In addition to being a gross misdemeanor (maximum of 364 days in jail and/or $5,000 fine), DWLS-1 has the following mandatory minimum jail requirements:
1. 10 days for a first offense;
2. 90 days for a second offense;
3. 180 days for a third or subsequent offense.
What's worse, you can be driving as a HTO and not know it if you fail to keep the DOL updated with your current address.
Right to a HearingThe DOL cannot just declare that someone is a HTO and suspend their driver's license. The driver must be notified of the intent to suspend and given an opportunity to request and have a hearing. The issues at the hearing are pretty straight forward. The DOL will only verify that the driver*s record supports a finding that the requisite number of convictions/committed findings occurred within a 5 year period. If so, the license will be suspended. A person*s need to drive or hardship status will not be considered. However, if the cause of the suspension was based upon an alcohol or drug substance dependency issue, and the person agrees to enter or has entered a treatment program, the suspension may be stayed.
Probationary LicenseThe DOL may allow the driver to hold on to his or her privilege to drive during the period of suspension on a probationary basis. To do so, it must be proven that:
1. The individual suffers from alcohol or drug dependency;
2. That the dependency was the cause of the driver being HTO; and
3. The driver agrees to enter into or has entered into a qualified chemical dependency treatment program.
Even if the driver does suffer from drug or alcohol addiction, the DOL is not required to grant you a probationary license. The DOL is also granted the right to impose restrictions or conditions that it deems reasonable. The stay will be effective so long the driver does not violate DOL imposed conditions, and is not convicted for violating the criminal driving statutes above. If either occurs, the RCW 46.65.060 mandates that the "stay shall be removed and the department shall revoke the operator's license for a period of seven years."
Reinstatement After 4 YearsRCW 46.65.080 states: "At the end of four years, the habitual offender may petition the department of licensing for the return of his or her operator's license and upon good and sufficient showing, the department of licensing MAY, wholly or conditionally, reinstate the privilege of such person to operate a motor vehicle in this state." [emphasis added]
The DOL states on its website that you are eligible to request reinstatement if:
You have been in HTO status for at least 4 years;
There is no evidence that you have driven within the past 2 years;
You have met all alcohol requirements, if any;
You aren't suspended for non-compliance with treatment; and
At least one year has passed since any previous reinstatement request has been denied.
Note that the law requires a "good and sufficient showing". This will require more than simply telling the DOL that not having your license is a major burden and wholly inconvenient - they know that. Additionally, the DOL is not required to grant your request. Their decision is discretionary. The above requirements also mean that if your petition is denied after 4 years of HTO status, you can petition after 5 years have passed, and so on.
What You Can Do to Prevent HTO Status and/or Mitigate OutcomesDon't just pay off your tickets - that's like pleading guilty to a criminal charge without a lawyer or appearing in court.
Keep your address updated with the DOL.
Be proactive! If you've received a fair number of infractions, or a combination of infraction and the criminal convictions listed above, consult with an attorney. Even if the attorney charges you a consultation fee, that few hundred dollars will seem like a bargain compared to the thousands you'll likely spend if the DOL moves to designate you as a Habitual Traffic Offender.