I wanna know: Roadside crosses - KPLC 7 News, Lake Charles, Louisiana

I wanna know: Roadside crosses

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We've all seen them: those signs along the road that mark the spot where someone died -- usually due to a car crash.

But are the signs are legal, and can they be removed?

"I love you baby," says Debbie Fontenot as she and others release balloons in memory of her son, who died one year ago.

St. Patrick's Day was the heart wrenching one-year anniversary for Fontenot and her family, since Jerry Sonnier Graham died in a car crash. Everyone called him "little man."

"I always said he should have been my little comedian, and everybody would agree with me. He never met a stranger, never met a stranger. Well liked and loved by everybody," said Fontenot.

The past year has been rough for family and friends who gathered both at the cemetery and, earlier, the place where he died in a car crash. A cross marks the spot along the roadway.

Fontenot often visits the cross next to Gateway Drive and adds for each season.

"What the cross means to me is a way to go out there and talk to him and decorate it on holidays. It's just a support thing for me," said Fontenot. 

But a resident nearby opposes the sign and has told Fontenot he doesn't like to see it and wants it removed. 

Fontenot describes the conversation that occurred one day when she was adding Easter decorations to the roadside cross. 

"He says, 'Don't you think this cross would look better at the grave site?' And I said, 'No sir. His headstone will.' He said, 'Well, people in the neighborhood don't like it, and I'm going to remove it.'  I said, 'Try it.'"

So, Fontenot wants to know if he can do that.

"I wanna know what the rules and regulations are for keeping my son's cross there. Can he, or can he not, take my son's cross?"
 
Calcasieu officials say they don't have a law or policy strictly prohibiting such crosses and that out of respect they usually leave them, if they don't interfere with road maintenance or cause a traffic hazard.

Still, Mark Judson with the SWLA Law Center says, legally, a citizen has no right to put a cross in a public right of way. But there might be a solution, since this particular cross is next to an empty lot.

"The person who places the sign there should not have a real legal expectation that it's allowed to be there, just because it's on public ground, but if you can position that sign on private land, with the permission of the private land owner, then it's purely a matter of private land ownership," said Judson.

And generally, he thinks the governmental entity that has the right of way would have the authority to remove such a sign. Judson says a private citizen taking a sign might be accused of theft.

"It could be that the property might belong to the person. It might not have been deemed abandoned yet. There's all kinds of legal issues as to an individuals rights to or to not physically remove the monument themselves," said Judson.

It is illegal to put crosses, signs or other items in state rights of way, but again, state highway officials say they tend to leave them alone if they don't create a road hazard or prevent maintenance. 

When a cross or political sign is removed from a public right of way, it's often saved by the state or local highway people so that an owner can retrieve it.

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