By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
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By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
Though society may not consider someone who goes 45 mph in a 30 mph zone a criminal, traffic tickets are covered by criminal law, and defendants have all the rights accorded to anyone accused of a crime -- the right to a trial by jury, the right to an attorney and the right to face their accusers.
Traffic-court lawyers want to make sure it stays that way. There are state and local bar associations for lawyers with traffic-ticket practices, and they are fiercely protective of their members' turf. The Municipal Justice Bar Association of Texas, with about 100 members, lobbies to maintain areas of "judicial discretion." To traffic-court lawyers, "judicial discretion" means room to maneuver -- otherwise, their services could become considerably more dispensable.
In 1991, the association successfully fought to overturn a measure that made a defensive driving course mandatory for a defendant who received deferred adjudication for a ticket.
"When it was mandatory and the sentence was prescribed, there was no need for a lawyer," explains association lobbyist Bill Pewitt. "The statute is very hard to read now but allows the judge more judicial discretion."
(Sprecher is almost religious about not allowing his clients to take defensive driving. "One, it says you took it on your driving record," he explains. "Two, you don't need a lawyer to take defensive driving.")
The traffic-court lawyers also have fought the decriminalization of traffic tickets -- which would mean accused citizens have fewer rights, judges would have less discretion and lawyers would have less work.
Sylvia Garcia, who's been the presiding municipal judge since 1987, recalls the complaints she got from defense attorneys when she ordered that obviously defective tickets be dismissed early, before defendants had to make court appearances, thus sparing both the accused and the system unnecessary burdens. To the lawyers, though, Garcia had whittled down their pool of prospective clients.
Lisabeth Abrams had five tickets, hired Sprecher and had all of them dismissed. "If you want [your tickets] taken care of, you call Sprecher. I never heard of him until I got in trouble," says Abrams. "But every case I saw in court at all was dismissed today."
The vice president of sales and marketing for a document management company, Abrams was grateful to Sprecher, but the experience left her thinking that there must be a racket to the entire system.
"I respect his right to create a niche in our capitalist economy," says Abrams. "But I worry about the public costs. For all the people we are paying to touch all the paper that makes this system, there has got to be a better way.
"Perhaps we should just have one fine for stupidity. The cop doesn't show -- there's a stupidity fine. The system lets you out on some technicality and you're dismissed -- the system pays a stupidity fine. You show up in court and don't bring your papers -- that's a stupidity fine. Three stupidity fines and you lose your license and have to stay off the streets."
Until that unlikely day, however, David Sprecher will continue to find ways to beat the system, and make a nice living doing it. And that's probably all to the good, considering the way the system is now set up. For without Sprecher there every morning to help clear out the dockets by locating the technical faults in the pleadings and waiting out the cops, the system might grind to a halt.
"I used to think Sprecher could just do what he wanted in the courts," says Mike O'Donnell, a former municipal court prosecutor. "But it's the sheer volume down there that makes it look like people are getting off easy. It's complaints typed by the clerk's office with errors, it's that you have all the rights of a murder case in a traffic court ....
"I think it still creates the deterrent needed," adds O'Donnell, who believes that drivers think twice before breaking traffic laws because, win or lose, they just don't want to deal with the municipal courts.
Perhaps so, but the clients huddled around Sprecher outside Court One seemed more than willing to accept the punishment of paying a lawyer and coming to court.
For his trouble, the young man allegedly caught speeding on Highway 290 was acquitted by a jury after a Sprecher associate argued that the officer's radar must have clocked another motorist's vehicle.
And, as Sprecher promised, there was indeed a defect in the "meshuganeh" pleading against the elderly woman, who had been accused of failure to yield and causing an accident. Her case was dismissed, and Sprecher could be overheard telling the prosecutor how cruel it would be to refile the charge against such a sweet old lady.