The King and His Courts

Traffic-ticket lawyer David Sprecher is a master at beating the system. But the system may need him more than his clients do.

In the corridor outside Court One, near the sign cautioning gentlemen to remove their hats before entering, a half-dozen strangers are huddled together, listening intently to the fast-talking guy with the trim gray beard who sits before them on a wooden bench.

"This city attorney is stupid," he assures an elderly white woman. "She probably won't even notice the defect in your complaint. What a meshuganeh pleading."

He quickly turns his attention to a young black man who's come to court today in a T-shirt and jeans.

"Let's see, what block were you stopped in? Ohhhhh, there is no way he could have caught you in that block of 290. We'll get this one."

These six strangers have two things in common: they've all been accused of speeding, running a red light or other traffic infractions, and they've all decided to fight their tickets in Houston's municipal courts by hiring David S. Sprecher, the overamped figure in the sports jacket who's running through his playbook like a quarterback priming his offense for the two-minute clock.

Among the tiny brotherhood of lawyers who pursue their livelihoods each morning in the city's traffic courts, Sprecher stands out. With his brusque East Coast manner, his extraordinary knowledge of the streets and speed traps of Houston and his keen grasp of municipal legal minutiae, Sprecher is the acknowledged king of the municipal courts. Shameless appeals to prosecutors, diligent downtime schmoozing of cops -- it's all part of the Sprecher Way to beat the system.

He's either the Percy Foreman or the 'Crazy Eddie' of the municipal courthouse," observes part-time Municipal Judge Brian Wice.

The courthouse in which Sprecher reigns is a notch or two down in atmosphere from the more rarefied state and federal level courts across Buffalo Bayou. It rarely attracts the attention of the media, and the mood is decidedly informal -- too much so for Presiding Municipal Judge Sylvia Garcia, who, in an effort to impose a semblance of decorum, has banned the wearing of shorts and is about to implement a "no pets" policy banning defendants from bringing their dogs and pet snakes to court.

Garcia is an earnest public servant, and it pains her to think that the public might not take the system seriously. After all, most traffic tickets are written with a serious purpose in mind: to prevent fatalities and other roadway mayhem. The municipal courts shouldn't be considered just a cash cow for the city, Garcia says.

But that perception is unavoidable, given the sheer volume of cases they suck in and disgorge each day. During the budget year ending in June, the system -- with ten courts running sometimes day and night -- collected about $40.8 million in fines for the city, took in more than 1.1 million new cases and dismissed nearly a half-million pending charges. And that's without the adjudication of parking tickets, which, since March 1995, can no longer be contested in municipal court.

Garcia presides over what amounts to a swift-moving assembly line, where manners and patience can get lost in the incessant haggling over cases. Occasionally, paperwork can get lost, too. Judges, prosecutors and court clerks sometimes bark their questions to bewildered defendants like impatient cafeteria servers grilling dawdling diners. In each of the three municipal courts where jury trials are conducted, the judges spend 20 or 30 minutes each morning stamping "dismissed" so fast and hard that they must be deriving some aerobic benefit from the exercise. Often, it seems as if justice has taken a back seat to keeping the overburdened system on track and functioning.

"There's a misconception that this is not a real courthouse," acknowledges Municipal Judge Elaine Bratton. "Even the lawyers get lackadaisical about taking it seriously."

Not David Sprecher, who's been working the curves and angles of traffic law for almost 20 years. Very few of the hundreds of other people who pass through metal detectors at 1400 Lubbock each day have the faintest notion about the written rules or, perhaps more important, the unwritten customs that govern the place. And it's best for lawyers like Sprecher that they don't.

By the time of the lawyer's midmorning huddle in the hallway, most of the two dozen or so clients he represented that day had already seen their tickets dismissed before they got to trial. Perhaps the complaints contained some niggling technical defect. Maybe the police officer who ticketed them failed to show up in court. Or, if the officer did appear, he told the judge he was not ready to proceed with the case.

It cost Sprecher's clients from $90 to $200 per offense, but few leave the courthouse thinking they've gotten any less than their money's worth -- even though many of them could have had their cases dismissed without having to pay an attorney. By avoiding a fine and a blot on their driving record, most are under the impression they've also avoided an automatic increase in their insurance premiums, although for many, the reality is their rates wouldn't go up with just one conviction. Other clients -- those who drive for a living -- will be able to keep their jobs by having their charges dismissed.

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