RICHMOND – A group of Norfolk jurors may decide whether rusty locks on a pedestrian bridge would justify a court-ordered remedy.
A Norfolk circuit judge says under a 1919 law, he will impanel a special grand jury to determine whether so-called “love locks,” placed by couples on a city pedestrian bridge as testimony to their feelings for each other, constitute a public nuisance.
The proceeding could lead to a judge ordering the city of Norfolk to remove the romantic souvenirs. The city has refused citizens’ requests to do so, saying the locks do not constitute a nuisance.
The judge took the citizens’ complaints seriously.
“To many, this case is silly. The Court understands, but does not entirely share, that sentiment. For centuries, the courts, both here and in England – whence we derive our law of nuisance – have protected the right of travelers to the unobstructed use of public highways,” wrote Judge Everett A. Martin in a Jan. 30 order.
Martin said he had hoped the city would avoid the need for a special grand jury – and a special prosecutor – by just cutting the locks off the bridge.
On personally inspecting the Hague Bridge – termed the “Botetourt Street Bridge” by the judge – Martin said he found about 100 locks attached to the railings, most protruding one to two inches into the walkway.
“Some of the locks are rusted and have sharp corners,” Martin said.
While he said the obstruction to the traveled portion of the bridge was de minimis – of no consequence – Martin said the law appeared to say that any obstruction within the exterior limits of a public highway is an abatable nuisance. He cited cases dating back to 1819.
But appointment of a jury would not automatically lead to an abatement order, Martin said.
“A grand jury might not return a presentment with respect to the present condition of the Bridge. If it does, upon the trial of the presentment, a petit jury might find the obstructions so insubstantial as not to amount to a nuisance,” Martins wrote.
Ruling on other details, Martin said the locks cannot be considered “graffiti” under a Norfolk nuisance ordinance. Since the offense would be only a misdemeanor, he would not require the prosecutor to appear in the case. He declined to appoint the citizens’ retained lawyer, Scott Carnes, as counsel to the grand jury.
Martin concluded by turning up the pressure on the city.
“The Court had hoped the City would remove the locks if given the opportunity to do so before the Court begins the search for counsel and the summoning of a grand jury,” the judge said. He noted a city lawyer said at a Jan. 22 hearing that the city had no intention of doing so.
“The Court imagines several Department of Public Works employees with bolt cutters could remove the locks in less time, with less inconvenience (including the inconvenience to any City officials the grand jury may subpoena) – and at far less expense – than it will take for a grand jury and its counsel to discharge their duties in the matter,” Martin said.
A spokesperson said city officials were reviewing the judge’s order. “No change in the City’s position at this time,” said Lori Crouch.
Ray Gregory – the Ghent neighborhood resident who instigated the nuisance action – said he remains baffled by the city’s reluctance to remove the locks.
“Indeed, one has to wonder why the city of Norfolk adamantly insists on allowing rusting padlocks to accumulate on this bridge, when many other cities have willingly banned such locks in order to spare their bridges and citizens from them,” Gregory said Jan. 31.