Yes, Ma’am. Monday, May 20 2013 

maam
I live in the Deep South.  Okay, I live in Florida, but contrary to what many snowbirds, reformed-Yankees, and other newly-minted Floridians seem to think, much of Florida is inhabited by proud Southerners whose ancestors settled this state and put it on the map through ranching and farming.  Now that our pioneering ancestors have transformed this swamp land into the glorious Sunshine State, droves of transplants from the frozen North and parts beyond have flooded into Florida to live, to enjoy our beaches, and to visit one of our ubiquitous theme parks.  Once they arrive, they unpack their bags, take in the fresh air, and promptly go about the business of rejecting our Southern heritage.

An integral part of being a Southerner, of course, is having Southern manners.  When I was growing up in the sticks, surrounded by mossy oak trees and cattle, my mother and father taught me the importance of saying “ma’am” and “sir” as a sign of respect.  This was not a quaint but optional turn of phrase; it was mandatory.  To refer to a teacher or parent or adult as anything other than ma’am or sir was tantamount to blasphemy.  You might as well address your pastor as “dude” and call your school principal by his childhood nickname Sparky.  So when my mother would call out for me, I did not respond with a snarky “WHAT?!” as many kids do today.  When my teacher asked me whether I had completed my homework assignment, I didn’t respond with a “yeah” or a “nope” like I was speaking to my kid sister.  A crisp yes or no, followed by ma’am was in order.

Like my mother before me, I have diligently tried to instill in my children the importance of saying ma’am and sir.  I admit that it has been an uphill battle.  Many of my female friends (transplants all) think it’s antiquated.  Some of them go so far as insisting that they not be called ma’am because they consider it derogatory.  Well, I’m here to set the record straight.  Ma’am is not some pejorative slang of the inbred masses.  Ma’am is a contraction of the word madam.  In Britain, ma’am is pronounced “mahm” or “muhm,” and it is used as a title of respect, especially when addressing female royalty.  When addressing the Queen of England, one must first address her as “Your Majesty,” and then only as “ma’am.”  Similar to ma’am, but not as reverential, are the titles dame, gentlewoman, and lady.  In the United States, Britain, and Canada, ma’am is used to address female officers of esteemed military rank.  Ma’am or Madam is the highest title of respect one can bestow on a woman — Madam Justice, Madam Speaker, Madam Secretary, Madam President.   In the case of a very young woman, girl, or unmarried woman who prefers to be addressed as such, “miss” is an appropriate ma’am equivalent, but in the South, ma’am denotes any female, no matter her age or position.  Still feel insulted, ladies?

Tellingly, I have never heard of a man feeling sullen and combative for being called “sir.”  That would be inane.  Clearly, the disdain for ma’am is a women’s issue, not a cultural one, which says more about the person who is offended than the person who is just being polite.  I would venture to guess that women who hate being referred to as ma’am are the same women who refuse to disclose their age and become depressed on their birthdays.   To those women, I say with all due respect and sisterly affection, buck up!  It’s not about you or how old you are or how you consider yourself exempt from trite Southern labels.  It’s about respect, so deal with it.  We will not sacrifice our manners or relegate hundreds of years of tradition to the dustbin of history to appease your vanity.

Many years ago, I had a substitute teacher who scolded me for calling her ma’am.  Visibly, displeased, she demanded, “Would you please stop calling me ‘ma’am’?  I don’t like it and consider it rude and offensive.”  Sheepishly, I looked down to the ground and whispered, “Yes, ma’am.”

The 3rd Grade Field Trip That Changed My Life Wednesday, May 15 2013 

Manatee County Courthouse

Manatee County Courthouse

In 1978, when I was in third grade, I went on a school field trip that forever changed the trajectory of my life.  I boarded a long yellow school bus with my teacher and classmates and headed to a mystical place, the likes of which I had only seen on TV or in the movies – the county courthouse.  As the bus dropped us off in front of the massive brick building (which was three stories tall, or practically a skyscraper in my hometown), we scurried into formation on the manicured green lawn.  Rows of gray stone steps, and four gleaming white Greek columns, led to the courthouse’s double doors.

Once inside, I immediately felt the cool comfort of central air conditioning, a luxury I did not enjoy living on a farm.  Deputy Sheriffs with crisply starched, forest green uniforms stood like sentinels against the wall, with shiny five-point stars affixed to their chests.  Like John Wayne, they wore leather holsters on their sides.  I marveled at the rows of gold bullets lining their belts and the .38 caliber pistols peeking out of their holsters.

To the sound of manual typewriters clicking furiously in the surrounding offices, the tour guide led us along the corridors of the courthouse trying, in vain, to explain the administration of justice to a gaggle of giggling 8-year olds.  She led us down a staircase to a dank, dimly lit basement that smelled of urine and cigarette smoke.  A row of small jail cells lined the back wall.   Through the rusting iron bars, I could see scruffy, unkempt men in black and white striped jumpsuits sitting in their cramped cells, with flimsy cots and grimy stainless steel toilets situated only inches away from where they slept. Filled with curiosity, I asked the guide why the men were locked up like lions at the zoo.  She explained they had been arrested the night before for breaking the law and were waiting to see the judge, whatever that meant.

We left the smelly basement, and I took my first ride on an elevator to the top floor.  I felt like I was Captain Kirk, being teleported to a strange new world where I’d never been before.  Quietly, we stepped inside a large courtroom, beaming with sunlight, and filled the wooden pews in the back of the room.  The courtroom reminded me of a cathedral.  It was a beautiful, imposing sight, with its dark paneled walls, high ceiling, and grand chandeliers.  A railing separated our seating area from two finely dressed gentlemen in three-piece suits who were standing behind podiums on opposite sides of the room, passionately addressing the judge — an older man with the peculiar name “Your Honor” — with indecipherable eloquence.

The judge wore a flowing black robe, perched high atop his bench. What appeared to be a small wooden mallet lay before him.  On the wall above his head hung a large seal of the state of Florida. The flags of Florida and the United States flanked the judge. My young heart stirred at the sight of those regal flags, edged with gold fringe and hung on tall poles topped with brass American eagles.

As I sat on the pew in that courtroom and took in the sights and sounds around me, my love of the law took root.

The Night I Almost Got Arrested … by a Bike Cop Monday, Sep 3 2012 

BikeCop Adventure Logo

The main reason I started this blog was to have a place to write the many stories I like to tell over and over.  One of the best, and oft-repeated, stories I tell has to do with the night I almost went to jail.

About 10 years ago, several years before I had my daughter and long before I met my husband, I was living la vida loca in downtown Orlando.   I had relocated to Central Florida two years earlier to take a job clerking for a federal judge, leaving my home town and my job as a prosecuting attorney behind.  At the time our story takes place, I was 31 and working at one of the largest law firms in Florida.  Life was pretty sweet.  My apartment complex — which made Melrose Place look tame in comparison — was positioned on Lake Eola overlooking the well-recognized fountain that has become synonymous with the City Beautiful.

Lake Eola Fountain

Two of my neighbors, let’s call them Chris and Al (because their names are Chris and Al), lived in a spacious two-bedroom apartment right next to the pool.  Their second-floor apartment had French doors that opened up to a small balcony from where you could behold the majestic lake, a view of the skyline, lush foliage and, of course, the pool.  Chris and Al had painted their apartment in an array of masculine colors — navy, maroon, hunter green, and the like — and dubbed their abode the “Crayola Tree House.”

One Friday night, I heard Chris and Al were having a party and, being the social butterfly I was back then, I went to check it out.  It was already past 9:00 p.m. when I sashayed into the Crayola Tree House.  The joint was hoppin’.  There were throngs of people there, the music was thumping, and the drinks were flowing.  I downed two (or maybe it was three) cosmopolitans to whet my whistle and was in full-on meet-n-greet mode when, all of a sudden, I heard people yelling my name from the general direction of the balcony.

Is Marilyn here?  Does anyone know Marilyn?  Chris needs her!  He’s being arrested!”

I skedaddled out to the balcony as fast as I could and peered over the railing to see what all the commotion was about.  Although my vision was obscured by the poor lighting (and blurred by the vodka), I could see below the outline of my neighbor Chris, the co-host of this fine party, seated in a chair next to the pool.  A man in dark clothing was standing over him, and a small group of onlookers had gathered nearby.

I stashed my martini on a bookshelf for safekeeping and dashed down the stairs to Chris’ aid.  As I entered the pool area, I noticed that the man standing over Chris was wearing skin-tight Spandex shorts, a polo shirt, and sneakers.  The back of the man’s shirt had the letters P-O- L- I- C-E in large white letters, and there was a bicycle parked a few feet away.  It was then that I realized that Chris had been busted by that curious species of law enforcement officer I had never encountered during my days as a prosecutor – the bike cop.  Even more curious than the sight of a police officer in Spandex was the sight of Chris, sitting ever so gingerly with his legs tightly crossed, soaking wet, and wearing nothing but a towel draped around his shoulders.

Having no clue what the heck was going on, silly me decided to ask the officer a few questions to get to the bottom of this.

Why, hey there, Ossifferr, what seems to be the problem here?” 

HALT!  DO NOT COME ANY CLOSER!”

It’s okay.  I’m his attorney.  (hiccup)  Why are you arresting him?”  

STAND BACK!  YOU ARE OBSTRUCTING MY INVESTIGATION.  IF YOU COME ANOTHER STEP FORWARD, I WILL PLACE YOU UNDER ARREST!” 

Okay, so here’s where I found myself in a bit of a sticky thicket.  On one hand, I’ve got a Neanderthal bike cop with a major attitude just itching to arrest a snarky girl-lawyer in club-troll attire who dared to question his actions.  On the other hand, I used to work with law enforcement all the time and knew that, despite the many dedicated police officers I had the pleasure of knowing, there were some unhinged egomaniacs with a badge out there who would wipe their asses with the Bill of Rights if it suited their agenda.

Stop right there.  I know what some of you are thinking.  “She’s a left-wing sympathizer who works for the Innocence Project and has Danny Rollins for a pen pal.”  No, far from it.  I was not, nor had I ever been, a card-carrying member of the ACLU or even a criminal defense attorney.   Rather, I was what you might call the “Law and Order” type of gal who pretty much assumed that you were guilty (in my mind at least) until proven innocent.  I’d never had any run-ins with the Po-Po other than a speeding ticket.  Heck, I had even earned the nickname “Maximum Marilyn” when I was a prosecutor for the enthusiasm with which I executed the duties of my office.  Still, this bike cop didn’t know me from Eve, and I fully understood how he and his ilk got their jollies off throwing uppity back-talkers in the slammer for a night, regardless of whether the arrest would pass constitutional muster by dawn’s early light.  Yep, any sane person in my high-heeled shoes would have shut up, stood back, and butted out.  So I persisted …

Why are you arresting this man?  What has he done?”

That’s it!  You’re going downtown.”

For what?”

Obstruction of justice.”

Oh, really?  I used to be an assistant state attorney, Bike Officer.  I know the law.”

What’s your bar number?”

What’s your badge number, Bike Officer, or do you need to consult your bike decal?”

You’re under arrest.”

Under arrest!  For what?  A violation of Chapter 843.02 of the Florida Statutes?  Whoever obstructs or opposes a law enforcement officer in the  lawful execution of a legal duty is guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree?  Is that what you think you’re arresting me for?  I DON’T THINK SO, Bike Officer!   Your investigation is OVER.   My client has already been arrested and he’s in cuffs.  You can’t arrest a lawyer for asking you a simple question.  Now, Bike Officer, tell me, what are you charging him with?

At this point in time, the hamster wheel in my alcohol-numbed brain was spinning frantically.  My heart was pounding.  Perhaps it wasn’t so wise to disparage a police officer — who had the full weight and authority of the government, not to mention a loaded handgun — and demean his nifty bike in front of an audience.  Poor Chris just sat there, naked as a jay bird, legs still firmly pressed together, his mouth agape in disbelief, as he watched the spectacle unfold before him.  Oh, yeah, I was taking the ride to jail that night for sure, although I wondered how Chris and I would both fit on the handlebars.

As the officer began marching toward me with a menacing look, I had two options:  (1) beg for mercy or (2) go all crazy lawyer on him.   Of course, I chose option number two.

Emboldened by a good buzz, I summoned my inner-scary-bitch and dared that officer to arrest me.  “Ever heard of Section 1983 of the United States Code, Bike Officer?  Do you own anything, Bike Officer?  Do you ever hope to own anything?  Because I’m going to sue your ass off, Bike Officer, and I’m gonna own you, your house, your car, and your damn bicycle.   You better think long and hard about what you’re doing before you abuse your power and illegally arrest me in front of all these witnesses.”

[Note:  Any lawyer worth his or her salt knows that the police have virtually unfettered discretion to arrest people illegally, thanks to a little something we like to call qualified immunity.  In other words, I was bluffing BIG TIME.]

The officer walked right up to me, said, “Your guy is going to jail,” and proceeded out of the gate to meet a uniformed police officer who had just arrived in a patrol car.  The officers took Chris into custody, wrapping a towel around his nether region before leading him away.

As they walked by me, I yelled out, “I’m invoking his right to counsel and his right to remain silent, Bike Officer.  Chris, don’t say anything.  I’ll come bail you out.”

A short while later, Al drove me down to the jail so I could post bail for Chris.  After Al and I nearly rolled on the floor of the booking department laughing over Chris’ hilarious naked, wet, drunken mug shot, I was finally able to talk to Chris.  He was sick with worry — not for himself, mind you, but for ME!  Apparently, the Bike Officer, in complete derogation of the Fifth Amendment, went in and told Chris how he’d checked up on his lawyer and found out that I was an attorney at a civil law firm and wasn’t even allowed to practice criminal law.  The Bike Officer gleefully harassed Chris about his lack of counsel and suggested that I was going to be in professional hot water for impersonating a criminal defense attorney.  (This is beyond idiotic, untrue, and a shameful attempt by an incompetent law enforcement officer to intimidate someone who is incarcerated.)

When Chris relayed this story to me, I was incensed that the Bike Officer had the audacity to confront Chris after I had invoked his right to remain silent.  I put Chris’ mind at ease and explained that he had no reason to worry because there is no ethical bar to prevent a civil lawyer from practicing criminal law or vice versa.  I then asked Chris why he was arrested, why he was naked, and what crime he’d been charged with.  Chris, embarrassed, explained that he had been imbibing with some friends and thought it would be fun to strip down to his birthday suit and jump in the pool.  There were only a few people in the pool area with Chris at the time and, not only were they not offended by his display, some of them had actually jumped in the pool with him (although fully clothed).

Chris was already out of the pool, nonchalantly sitting in a pool chair with his legs crossed when the Bike Officer, who lived at our apartment complex and received reduced rent in exchange for security services, happened to walk by.  The Bike Officer ordered Chris to stand up and, upon confirming he was naked, handcuffed him.  And what was Chris’ crime?  The Bike Officer arrested Chris for exposure of sexual organs — a sex crime reserved for flashers and perverts who show their wankers to unsuspecting Girl Scouts selling cookies door-to-door.   It is a crime for which you will have your DNA harvested and entered into the national DNA database as a sex offender if convicted.  It is a big deal, a crime that could cause negative ramifications throughout your entire life.  It certainly did not apply to a harmless, moonlight skinny-dip among a few consenting adults.

To make a long story a bit longer, I undertook my first and only criminal defense representation to help Chris fight the bogus charge.  Eventually, I was able to convince the prosecutor assigned to the case that the Bike Officer did not have probable cause to arrest Chris because he did not witness all of the elements of the crime in his presence.  He didn’t even see Chris’ sexual organs until after he commanded Chris to stand up.  Also, importantly, there were no witnesses who would support the Bike Officer’s claim that Chris had offended the public morals (which, let’s face it, were sorely lacking at our apartment complex).  Lastly, the Bike Officer had flat out lied when he claimed that Chris had lasciviously exposed himself to a host of unsuspecting citizens who were walking and driving along the main road in front of the apartment complex.  Chris was seated in a dimly lit area behind the apartment complex, not in view of the street, and there wasn’t a single person who would testify otherwise.

In the end, the charges against Chris were dropped, and the Bike Officer had to find a new place to live.  I was grateful that my legal training enabled me to help a friend avoid a terrible injustice, and I became a D-list celebrity around my apartment complex in the process.  People would frequently stop and ask me, “Hey, aren’t you that lawyer from Chris’ party who told off that cop and kept calling him ‘Bike Officer’ over and over?  Whoa, that was crazy.”

Yes, that was me and, yes, it certainly was.

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