The King and His Courts
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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