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.

Knowing the cops can pay off if an officer has to leave the courthouse early for some other assignment, and Sprecher, armed with that knowledge, can have his clients wait around until after the officer's departure and win a dismissal of the charges.

Another grounds for dismissal is a ticketing officer's failure to remember a defendant. "It's really hard when you have a client who is memorable. One was wearing a clown suit," Sprecher recalls, "another had five puppies in the back seat. And another woman who had glasses and shoulder-length black hair was really upset when the cop picked her out in court wearing contacts and with short blond hair."

Sometimes, a particular officer just doesn't like a particular prosecutor and will agree with Sprecher to a dismissal, which usually means the prosecutor will follow suit.

"You have to know who has bonded," Sprecher says of the cops and prosecutors.

Of course, the officer could be assigned to a radar or accident unit and might not be especially fond of Sprecher. He'll toy with the lawyer while Sprecher tries to wear him down on some arcane point, arguing over the location of the speed zone sign or whether the radar could have picked up a faster-moving car in the far lane.

And there are times when an officer will tell a prosecutor he's not ready to proceed, but it won't be because he has a blurry memory.

"It is an absolute farce in municipal court," says Hans Marticiuc, the interim president of the Houston Police Officers Union. "Most of us don't want to go down there. We can find plenty of excuses not to go. And if we have to go, we can announce 'not ready' because we don't want to be there."

In other words, as some officers waiting in the courthouse hallway will tell you, the Lanier administration's stinginess with pay raises for HPD's rank-and-file is motivation enough for some of their colleagues to skip court dates.

Marticiuc says officers should be allowed to give warning tickets to keep them from wasting so much time at the municipal courthouse. Such a change would also benefit low-income drivers, he says, since they are the ones most likely to be ticketed for inspection and license violations after they're stopped.

"It wouldn't be good for the lawyers," Marticiuc acknowledges, "but it would keep us from leaning so hard on people for the less serious stuff and would still allow us to meet our informal quotas" for ticket-writing.

Alice O'Neill is a lawyer, so she might be expected to have a better notion of what goes on in traffic court than most ticketed drivers. Yet her day at the municipal courthouse was full of surprises.

O'Neill had been a few blocks from home when she was stopped for speeding. It was nighttime, and the officer placed a spotlight on her car before approaching her. O'Neill was scared, but what the officer read on her face was disrespect.

"I was sitting in the courtroom, and Sprecher came to me and said, 'What you did, you pissed off the cop. He won't let you go. He's adamant,' " says O'Neill. She wound up agreeing to a deferred adjudication for her ticket. That's like being placed on probation and fined, but not all municipal judges will accept deferred adjudications, and Sprecher does not consider it to be much of a win for his clients.

But it was fine to O'Neill, who didn't have to pay Sprecher a dime. "The unspoken payment," she says, "is that you refer cases to him."

When it was over, O'Neill was glad to go.
"There was a clan of people who obviously spend their day there. It seemed similar to a market in Mexico, with all the bargaining and price lowering. That's how it looked to me. Cases were just being dropped."

That's indeed the way it looks, at least on the surface, when a list of 450 cases set for trial by juries in the morning is routinely whittled down to a handful of actual trials by the afternoon. Of the 131,000 municipal cases set for jury trials from July 1995 through this June, 37 percent ended in dismissals and another 25 percent ended in judgments in which the defendant paid nothing (including agreements to perform community service).

"There is a great misunderstanding about what we do," says lawyer Bob Rosenberg, who left a felony court practice to work for Sprecher. "A lot of our clients assume the ticket is being fixed. They may think there is money under the table. A lot of lawyers think there is no law being practiced here."

All some clients may see is a judge stamping their case "dismissed." All they may hear is their name being called and their lawyer saying something like, "It's done, it's over, go on home." Then they'll be walked a few feet to the courtroom aisle while the next defendant approaches the bench for some split-second justice.

For his $40 or $200 fee per ticket -- and many clients have more than one ticket -- all the lawyer may have done is stand before the judge, and that service will be repeated for a dozen or more clients a day.

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