Constitutional Challenge to Controversial NYC Knife Law Moves Ahead

The original gravity knife targeted under a 1950s-era ban
The original gravity knife targeted under a 1950s-era ban
Courtesy of snyderstreasures.com

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals has cleared the way for a constitutional challenge to the Manhattan D.A.’s enforcement of a controversial knife law.

In a decision announced Tuesday, September 22, the court determined that some of the plaintiffs — a retail store targeted by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance for selling allegedly illegal knives, as well as two individuals arrested for the same offense — have legal standing to sue Vance and challenge the law as enforced.

The court denied standing to the other plaintiff in the case, the Arizona-based advocacy organization Knife Rights. And while he won’t be able to press the organization’s related claims, Doug Ritter, president of Knife Rights, says he was nonetheless pleased with the result.

“We are absolutely thrilled that our three plaintiffs are going to get a chance to be in court on the merits,” Ritter tells the Voice.

The suit dates back to 2011, when artist John Copeland and art dealer Pedro Perez, along with Knife Rights and knife retailer Native Leather, sued the Manhattan D.A. over what they say is an unconstitutionally vague standard for enforcement of New York’s “gravity knife” law. The question of whether a folding knife is illegal comes down to a contentious “wrist flick” test that Vance maintains is the determining factor between an illegal and a legal blade.

The enforcement of the state gravity knife statute, which is rare outside of the five boroughs, was the subject of a lengthy Voice investigation last year. As that story revealed, law enforcement data shows that as many as 60,000 people — more than 87 percent of them black and Latino — have been prosecuted for carrying pocketknives since 2003.

The gravity knife statute dates from the mid-1950s and was originally aimed at a close cousin of the switchblade that is now largely extinct on the modern market. But according to many in the legal community, the NYPD’s enforcement has become exceptionally broad, ensnaring innocent people carrying what should be considered legal knives. Democratic lawmakers have been trying for several years to roll back the prohibition, and even the state judiciary has said the law is commonly misapplied.

Part of the issue is technological: Virtually any modern pocketknife can be made to open with a skillful flick of the wrist (especially as a tool ages) — even if it was never intended to operate that way. The result, according to defense attorneys and some in the labor community, is that it’s virtually impossible to tell whether an individual knife is legal, because legality is ultimately dependent on the “flicking” skills of an arresting officer.

That vagueness is at the center of the current suit. Copeland and the other plaintiffs argued that while they’d like to possess pocketknives, they’re unable to determine which ones are, in fact, legal, and are therefore being prevented from possessing any pocketknives at all. They challenged the law under the U.S. Constitution’s equal-protection clause, arguing that it’s so vague as to be essentially arbitrary.

That argument was initially rejected by a lower court, which determined that because the two individuals and the retail store were not actively being prosecuted and could not show that prosecution was imminent, they had no standing or reason to sue. But the Second Circuit has rejected that claim on appeal. The plaintiffs, the court wrote, “demonstrated a credible threat of prosecution based on defendants’ (a) recent enforcement actions against them, (b) express threat to prosecute Native Leather further...and (c) continued defense of the wrist-flick test that allegedly prompted plaintiffs’ past violation charges.”

No court has yet examined the merits of the plaintiffs' claims, so the case will now be sent back to a lower court for full hearing.

Joan Vollero, a spokeswoman for the Manhattan D.A.’s office, tells the Voice via email that the office is “pleased that the Second Circuit court affirmed the district court’s decision in part, and we will continue to litigate the remaining portions of the case in the district court.”

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