The daffodils' day in court

Ellen Kirvin Dudis

May 24, 1991|By Ellen Kirvin Dudis

IT HAPPENED shortly before Easter.

The man and his wife were working in the nursery behind their house. House and nursery sit a good way back in the field, on the east side of their farm near Pocomoke City. Glancing up, the couple saw a bright red car stop on the county road which bounds their property on the south. There, covering the little hill, where one of two tall pines sports a "No Trespassing" sign, spring's first explosion of daffodils was in full bloom.

A woman got out of the car and began picking flowers. Amazed that someone would trespass so openly, in full view of the sign, the house and the property owners, the man ran into the field shouting. Shouting back, the thief suggested he take himself someplace extraterrestrial and drove off.

"The nerve!" fumed the man.

"The gall!" echoed his wife.

Anyone who asked permission was more than welcome to a bouquet. But such flagrant, even belligerent, disregard for private property angered these two. So both were incredulous when, a couple of days later, a bright red car again stopped at the farm hill and a woman began helping herself to the daffodils.

This time the man hopped in his car, chugged down the lane and out onto the county road; pulling into the opposite lane, he parked at an angle so that the red car could not pass. When he confronted its driver, she insisted she had never before picked his daffodils and didn't think she was stealing. Two children looked up, their laps full of flowers.

That was that, until a citation for "obstructing free passage" arrived. What, when, where? The man called the courthouse. This woman who trespassed on his property and stole his daffodils had filed a complaint!

Now, a month later, armed with a plat of their property and photos of the hill, the man and his wife sat in the crowded little district courtroom in Snow Hill. The day's docket included all manner of traffic violations -- DWI, negligence, plate-switching. Each case revealed very specific, very personal circumstances. And in a small community like Worcester County, where folks are likely to know one another, the personal atmosphere is magnified.

As they listened to case after case, the man and wife found the judge decidedly fair, sensitive to the emotional and financial difficulties of defendants who had real problems. In light of so many daily struggles for survival, daffodils began to look . . . silly. The couple shared a growing embarrassment. The judge, whose wife had been their son's kindergarten teacher, might think this dispute better suited to her classroom than his courtroom.

Perhaps it was fortunate, then, that their case came up last, with no one present but the accuser, the accused, his wife as witness, the state's attorney and the judge. Each side had its say. The judge listened patiently, looked at the photos and diagrams on the court blackboard, even asked a few questions. But in the end, the wife, who was still trying to absorb the awesomeness of swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, heard him saying what she suspected he would say:

"This has nothing to do with the daffodils."

Inarguably and deliberately, the man had blocked a public road. That is a misdemeanor. Guilty as charged -- but, with the Latin which nullifies English, the verdict would be suspended. Fine, $5, plus $10 court costs. Yes, the defendant's property rights had been violated, and his desire to stop the offender was legitimate. His method, however, was unlawful. He should have remained on his side of the road and waved the woman to stop; or taken her license number and filed a complaint.

"But," persisted the man, after accepting the verdict, "aren't the courts already overburdened with frivolous cases?" He hadn't wanted to sue; he only wanted to let a trespasser know he didn't appreciate it.

Somehow the couple had failed to articulate the underlying question. The daffodils were not irrelevant. For at what point may you break a law in order to protect your property? Often their children played on that hill by the road. What if someone tried to steal their children? Might they not do almost anything to prevent that thief from geting away? Or were they simply to wave for him to stop, or note his license and report it to the police?

The ends vs. means balancing act, old as the human race, will be with us always. Today, the social value assigned to maturity of response, weighed against the property value assigned to a handful of daffodils, had determined the verdict. Meanwhile, the man and his wife came to a single , unanimous, undisputable conclusion:

Only daffodils are free.

Helen Kirvin Dudis writes from Pocomoke City.

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