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.

Despite his reputation around the municipal courthouse, Sprecher is almost invisible outside of it. He likes it that way: he's got a lucrative gig, and he doesn't go out of his way to call attention to himself. He makes a habit of not returning calls from persistent journalists. And though he'll walk away from a reporter at a fast clip, he usually can't stop talking as he does.

Sprecher is on the road before sunrise most mornings, driving from his home in Waller County to a Houston condo he keeps. He arrives at the courthouse by 8 a.m., parking his black '84 Mercedes two-seater in a special open garage he rents a block away. He typically heads for Court One, where he positions his Halliburton briefcase -- filled with clients' tickets and bits of law -- in front of the bar, and grabs a see-through pocket notebook divider he's filled with the day's most important papers.

Sprecher already has shifted into high gear, and he doesn't seem to come to rest for the remainder of the morning. A judge once reportedly said that the lawyer would do well to slip on a "feedbag of Valium." After a serious car accident left his back broken in three places, Sprecher ran his office from his hospital bed and appeared in court soon after wearing a partial body cast.

"I had to come back," he says. "We were losing $10,000 to $15,000 a month because I wasn't down here."

Sprecher is ubiquitous at the weekday morning readings of cases set for jury trials, where the accused are about 80 percent more likely to see their charges dismissed than at their arraignments or in trials to the judge. He spends most of his time in Court One, whose judge has a defense-friendly reputation. But Sprecher has one or two of his associates covering adjacent courtrooms, and he often dashes between the three courts.

Despite the demands on his attention, not a whole lot seems to get past him. When a prosecutor questions a trio of Houston police officers on the whereabouts of "Officer Lowder," the answer comes from across the courtroom, courtesy of a seemingly out-of-earshot Sprecher: "Lowder's on vacation with his family." When a judge orders her bailiff to locate a particular defense attorney, the disembodied voice of Sprecher can be heard calling from another room to inform her honor that the lawyer she wants is next door in Court Three.

Nobody really plans on becoming a traffic-court lawyer, not even David Sprecher. He came to Texas from Florida in the mid-'70s and worked as a night manager at ABC Bonding Company before enrolling at South Texas College of Law, intending to develop a practice in collective bargaining and negotiation. But while a law student, he fought his own traffic ticket, enduring two trials -- and two guilty verdicts -- before persuading a judge to set aside the second verdict. He had found his calling.

After getting his law degree in 1978, Sprecher was employed by a series of lawyers whose practices consisted of defending clients with traffic tickets and other criminal misdemeanor charges, including Harry A. "Red" Loftus and the late Max Weiner, a certified eccentric who called himself "doctor" and compiled a book of "good ideas" entitled Is There Anything New Under the Sun? By the late eighties, Sprecher had opened his own office, working for a while with now-state District Judge Pat Shelton.

Sprecher isn't the first or only lawyer to make a good living off of traffic-ticket lawyering, but he's refined it to a high art.

"He's the master guru," says Ron Hayes, a veteran criminal defense attorney who occasionally defends clients in the muni courts.

Sprecher brags that he maintains files on his most recent 40,000 cases on the computer system in his Montrose office. His practice -- he has a stable of associate attorneys who also make traffic tickets their business -- is a legal Wal-mart: high volume, big turnover.

And low overhead: while Sprecher has an 800 number, he does not advertise on TV and has only a modest ad in the Yellow Pages (he doesn't make political contributions, either). However, he's created a huge word-of-mouth business through his gratis representation of other lawyers, who, in turn, direct prospective clients Sprecher's way. And if a state-certified peace officer actually gets a traffic ticket -- reportedly, it has happened -- Sprecher says he'll represent the officer for free, too. (He claims that service, if performed for a Houston police officer, would not be in violation of the ordinance that prohibits city employees from taking gifts, although that assertion seems questionable.) He also still underwrites bonds, and he's been known to bail out the errant son or nephew of a Houston celebrity who's been picked up on a failure-to-appear-in-court warrant.

"Geez, don't do anything to hurt David Sprecher," admonishes one Houston lawyer. "He got me off on a ticket. He gets all the Baker & Botts and Vinson & Elkins attorneys off for free."

The courtroom door bursts open and out comes Sprecher, feigning shock and unable to mask his delight that a client's speeding complaint read "under the conditions" where it should have read "under the circumstances."

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