How the Slumlord Beats the City Every Time

City inspectors have written Jack Topletz and his family thousands of tickets for miserable conditions in their rent-house empire. They say they've ended up paying, oh, once or twice.

One look at the working conditions in the dirty, worn-out municipal courts building--where some attorneys are afraid to drink the water--and they realize it isn't a place they want to stay in for long. Some hang around only a few months before moving up, says one assistant city attorney. It's hardly long enough to learn the job.

An assistant city attorney who asked that he not be identified says prosecutors have, on one hand, the normal run of cases in which nobody is picking over the details. Sloppiness by code inspectors doesn't matter. But then there are the cases defended by Trantham and a small handful of other skilled practitioners in which every mistake will be exploited. "There was a standard you needed for most cases and the Trantham standard," the lawyer says, reaching up with one arm. "The Trantham standard was up here."

Because these are criminal citations, the same detailed rules of procedure that govern murders or other felony cases apply, and any number of technicalities are in place to protect defendants' rights.

The difference is that in municipal court, where the stakes are usually a few hundred dollars in fines, cases typically do not get that kind of detail-oriented effort. That goes for the defendants, who often represent themselves or hire low-powered lawyers, as well as the prosecutors, who work out plea deals by the thousands. They rarely test themselves or their cases against good lawyers. Preparation time for a prosecutor may be as little as 10 minutes per trial.

"They shear sheep down there," Trantham says. "It's batch-processed justice."

Stewart, who specialized in prosecuting major ordinance violators during her years in Dallas, says her best weapon was being "a good bluffer." She recalls how she'd plea-bargain tens of thousands of dollars in fines from companies and lawyers on code-violation cases she knew wouldn't hold up against even a moderately competent defense.

Her log is filled with notations such as this on 187 tickets the S.A.F.E. team wrote against one landlord, Junction Holding: "Of the 187 cases, only 7 were possibly good cases. The remaining cases lacked the necessary evidence to meet our burden of proof. Secondly, the notice given to these defendants was four years old and not for the same offenses. Thirdly, no time was given for the defendant to fix the problems."

The company apparently wasn't aware of these technical defects, because, as records show, it was content to accept probation on 53 cases and pay $5,000 in fines.

The Topletzes, meanwhile, contest everything--the procedures, the law, sometimes even the substance of the allegations.

In other words, they call the city's bluff.
Trantham, who says he charges the family a fee of about $100 a ticket, has appealed Topletz tickets all the way to the Texas Supreme Court.

"Usually, I've got 10 tickets dismissed by 10 o'clock, and I'm done for the day. I've got time to play," he crows. Over the past 18 months, he has shifted his practice--and its niche of picking apart city ordinances--to Denton County. "Time for a change. I've done that for a long time," he says of his Topletz work.

Trantham, a big man with a rapid-fire voice, is spending his semi-retirement indulging his love for Civil War reenacting--he'll play a Yankee or a Rebel--shooting cannons, black powder rifles, and just about anything else. On the screen saver of his office computer is a photo of his 14-year-old son firing a Thompson submachine gun into the West Texas desert.

The effectiveness of the Topletzes' don't-give-an-inch approach was demonstrated in mid-March, the last time a Topletz ticket went to trial in municipal court.

One of the jurors, Sharon Hiner, remembers that Trantham was abrupt and rude to his clients. "He was sort of ordering them around," she says. But there wasn't much to recall about the trial, which was over before it began.

The case involved a house just west of the Trinity River, on a rutted, muddy stretch of West Main Street, a sort of tobacco road plus heavy trucks.

The house, tucked below a tall railroad bed, was ticketed for peeling paint in November 1997. The Topletzes apparently were not moved to action by this, because they were ticketed again for peeling paint on the same house five months later, in April 1998.

"They thought they had a fine case here, so we said, great, let's go to trial," Trantham recalls, a bit mockingly. "They're hard chargers down there. There was this kid on it named Ajay."

Ajay Shaw, to be precise, a freshly minted attorney who joined the city attorney's office last year.

"He's brand-new, and I thought, I'll be a jerk, break him of being arrogant, so I picked a fight," Trantham recalls. He offered a motion challenging whether the city could prove that the Harold Topletz against whom they wrote the ticket was the same Harold Topletz who was sitting there in court.

Judge Solis, who conducted the trial, explained later that identification must be proved in virtually every criminal case. It is an essential step in prosecution.

"I asked Ajay if he had a witness ready, anybody, a tenant or a secretary or the code inspector, who knew whether this was Mr. Topletz," recalls Solis. "He didn't. So I had to grant the motion dismissing the case."

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