Getting Off

Sergei Tukanov drove his gold Nissan Maxima through a red light toward the end of a Sunday night. It T-boned a police cruiser, sending Tukanov into his airbag and the female officer at the wheel to the hospital.

An officer from the DWI Task Force was called to the scene. He reported a strong odor of alcohol on the six-foot-three, 250-pound native Russian. Tukanov's eyes were red and glassy. His heavily accented speech was slurred, and he admitted he'd been drinking. He swayed when he walked and swayed when he stood in place. On the one-leg stand he swayed again, flailed his arms and dropped his foot twice. He missed on all eight categories of the walk-and-turn and all six of the pen test, the most incriminating in the field sobriety lineup. Then he refused to take a breathalyzer.

Tukanov already had one conviction for driving while intoxicated, and a second could land him in jail. So he reached deep into his bank account and hired Tyler Flood, whose ad he had seen on the first page of a booklet full of local DWI attorneys. It had a photo of the striking and sharply dressed Flood, who looks like a TV pitchman, and, in big letters, "Do Not Blow," a common slogan in Houston.

Harris County's penchant for ranking right at the top of the nation in drunk driving-related fatalities and arrests has spawned a horde of defense lawyers dedicated to DWI. It's the one crime an otherwise law-abiding citizen might conceivably commit — and pay well to defend. As prosecutor Sean Teare puts it, "You'll never have a true jury of your peers like you do in DWI."

There are the two local legends: Gary Trichter, who appears in and out of court as Buffalo Bill, and the six-foot-seven legal encyclopedia Troy McKinney. Atop the current generation are the congenial cowboy Jed Silverman and genteel Doug Murphy, also known as the drinking driver's best friend. Thirty-one-year-old Mark Thiessen is rumored to have the best win percentage of any defense lawyer in town.

Then there is Flood, perhaps not the best but the flashiest for sure. And Flood is everywhere. You might sign a bill at a restaurant with a Tyler Flood pen, drink beer at a bar with a Tyler Flood pint glass, play poker with a deck of Tyler Flood cards. Or look up from a urinal at Minute Maid Park and see Tyler Flood staring down from the wall — arms crossed, hair fashioned into a contemporary version of the Vanilla Ice spike.

Silverman calls him "Jim Dandy," and Flood seems to embrace the slick and smug defense attorney's persona. His suits are custom-made. He wears a Baume et Mercier Swiss luxury watch and writes with a Montblanc pen. He gives Astros tickets to court coordinators and is friends with at least one DWI cop on Facebook. And he loves to boast about getting drunk drivers off the hook.

"Listen, most of the people we get off are intoxicated. But that's the justice system," he says. "I've always thought people would be very concerned if they knew what we were doing."

Police found Kevin Thomas passed out at an intersection with freshly iced beer in the back of his truck. He didn't blow, but his field sobriety tests were recorded at the police station. The officer asked Thomas to pick a foot and raise it six inches above the ground. Thomas lifted his left leg, then braced against a padded wall. Soon he was hopping and flailing around the room, giggling like a fool. Flood, who calls trial a popularity contest, turned the jury against the cops.

One client admitted to drinking on Cinco de Mayo and puked on himself in the back of the squad car. Flood persuaded the jury this could have been a hypoglycemic episode. Another was seen speeding and swerving through town in the middle of the afternoon, then found passed out in a parking lot with an open 40-ounce of Mickey's beside him in the car. ("I don't know," Flood says. "Good jury. Three people had DWIs.") Flood says he can remember losing only two cases in which the client refused all sobriety tests. He blames at least one of the anomalies on "aggravating circumstances": The man had picked up a case of beer, then a homeless man from the side of the road, and was headed to a strip club.

With Oliver Feast, Flood won three times in a span of 18 months. Feast politely refused all tests during each arrest, and Flood got two grudging trial-day dismissals followed by a quick "not guilty," all for lack of proof.

He won with Tukanov, too.

Flood approaches the potential jurors, who cough and creak and groan along the wooden benches, like the guy breaking the ice at a high school dance.

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Mike Giglio
Contact: Mike Giglio