Longform

How the Slumlord Beats the City Every Time

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"There was a lot of friction with code inspectors," she says. "You'd get someone trained. Then the turnover was so great, someone else would come in, and you'd have to start over again."

Beyond that, judges would let lawyers like Trantham string the cases along for months and sometimes years, she recalls. Sometimes Trantham would fail to appear, then be granted continuances because judges rarely blame defendants for attorneys' absences.

Stewart says she was contacted several weeks ago by a police investigator pursuing Page. "That's a personal battle between Robin and the S.A.F.E. team," she says, adding that she is certain nothing will come of it.

Stewart and Page--who moved from starting jobs in prosecution to more specialized posts--developed far more experience prosecuting code violations than most prosecutors.

"Prosecution is a starting position in the city attorney's office," says O'Neal, the administrative judge. Hired fresh out of law school, most of these junior prosecutors are simply passing through on their way to positions down the street at what's known as "big City Hall." "They don't have any experience with this type of law," the judge says.

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.

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Thomas Korosec
Contact: Thomas Korosec