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.

For Sprecher, it was a hole-in-one, a three-pointer with nothing but net. The case was dismissed.

Sprecher finds the devil in the details. He'll get a ticket tossed because it said "NorthLoop" instead of "North Loop," or spring a client whose multisyllabic foreign surname was incorrectly spelled on his ticket with an "a" instead an "i." City prosecutors could refile those charges, but, with so many more new cases threatening to overwhelm the system each day, they usually don't -- especially if the ticketing officer acquiesces in the dismissal.

One consistent Sprecher tactic is to request a jury trial for all of his clients, which is likely to be scheduled anywhere from six months to one year away.

"Asking for a jury trial in this courthouse is a device to get cases dismissed," says John Petruzzi, a former assistant district attorney who occasionally practices in the municipal courthouse.

Though he denies it, it appears Sprecher frequently finagles to funnel his clients' cases into defense-friendly Court One. The determination of when and where a case will be heard is supposed to be an impartial process, dictated solely by the ticketing officer's next free day to appear in court (which is prearranged -- sometimes months in advance -- by the HPD-courts liaison working with the courts clerk's office). But lawyers such as Sprecher with large rosters of clients can request that the clerk's office bundle together their clients' cases for a particular court on a particular date. Thus, Sprecher may be allowed to choose the Court One dates from among the next few times each ticketing officer is scheduled for the various courts.

He also regularly subpoenas traffic and engineering studies -- if he doesn't already have them -- for the streets on which his clients were stopped. State law sets the speed limit at 30 mph in municipalities, and any time a city imposes a different limit, it must perform a study to justify the divergence. Without such a study, the speed limit is technically invalid. For Sprecher's clients, no study means no conviction.

Other traffic-ticket lawyers say they've never bothered with that ploy. In Bellaire, Sprecher and his associates are the only lawyers to ever ask for traffic and engineering studies, says Robert C. Richter, that city's municipal court prosecutor. Richter, who, admittedly, is not a big fan of Sprecher's style, says the city had to have studies performed on all of its speed zones just because of Sprecher.

Sprecher says the city of Houston has generally caught on to that quirk in the law, although speeders ticketed in newly annexed areas can usually expect Sprecher to get their charges bounced until the city gets around to doing the studies.

Sprecher will appeal traffic cases, too, as he did with his own ticket back in law school. He laments a change in the law that forbids a municipal case from being retried on appeal to a county court. Before the change, Sprecher and his colleagues routinely irritated assistant district attorneys by forcing them to retry muni court tickets for everything from speeding to having a peacock in the yard.

"I remember being an assistant in county court -- I thought those cases were stupid. I thought it was a stalling tactic. I hated them," says Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes, who pushed for the change that prevents traffic cases from being retried in a higher court.

But each time the law or the system blocks his way, Sprecher finds another route. He's a legal mosquito -- persistent and, to certain people, highly annoying.

"I tell you, I've seen some insurance cards I had to hand to the judge like this," Sprecher says, holding his nose and lifting an imaginary card like a smelly diaper. This shtick is being performed for the benefit of a couple of HPD officers who are relaxing against the curved railing where the second floor of the courthouse overlooks the stream of people entering the building.

Sprecher generally does not know his clients by sight, but he appears to know almost every uniformed HPD officer by name. He cultivates them assiduously. On a typical morning, he seems to banter with every cop in the building. There he is in a courtroom, leaning against a jury box and chatting up the cops waiting to testify. Here's Sprecher out in the hallway, joking by the water fountain with a patrolman or off in a corner in close consultation with a sergeant. Now he's coming up out of a stairwell, telling the officer accompanying him, "Let's do that."

Information and cooperation are what Sprecher seeks. In return, the officers get an earful of jokes, insider gossip and stories about Sprecher's teenage daughters. Other attorneys consider it improper to talk to the state's witnesses. Not Sprecher.

"He tries to be our buddy," shrugs one officer waiting for a case to be called. "He's got a job to do, and so do we. He's been here since dirt. Most of us can tolerate him."

Sprecher's success often depends on the cops, since the ticketing officer can be the key to getting a case dropped.

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