Will New York Republicans Kill Knife Law Reform for the Second Year in a Row?
Update 6/19/15, 2:32 p.m. — With the extension of Albany's legislative session at least through next Tuesday, multiple sources in the legislature say the gravity knife bill is still in play, and potentially may move to a vote in the Senate. We'll keep this story updated as things move forward.
As the legislative session in Albany winds to a close — and despite being extended an extra 24 hours — a bill to amend New York’s gravity knife law appears to be dead in the state senate.
What’s surprising isn’t so much the bill’s demise in a busy legislative session, but the breakdown of the votes, and the ideological bizarro-world the measure has created in the state legislature.
For the second year in a row, a liberal, downstate Democrat has proposed a bill designed to end the over-criminalization of pocket knives — a subject the Voice has covered extensively. And for the second year in a row, almost all the opposition to the measure has come from the Republican side of the aisle. In some cases, second-amendment-supporting Republican legislators were actively sponsoring bills to roll back restrictions on firearms even as they helped ensure that New Yorkers — overwhelmingly New Yorkers of color — continued to be arrested for possessing knives.
“It’s certainly surprising,” says Doug Ritter, director of Knife Rights, an Arizona based lobbying group that advocates for relaxing knife rights primarily on second amendment grounds. “Many of [those opposed] are upstate senators whose constituents are going to the city and getting arrested with the same pocket knives they’re carrying back home.”
The state law banning so-called gravity knives has been on the books for more than half a century, becoming increasingly controversial in recent years. Critics say the law’s original intent has been distorted, and that it’s too often used to arrest peaceful people for carrying innocuous tools. A Voice analysis suggests that people of color are almost twice as likely to be arrested than their white counterparts even when both parties are carrying knives. Under stop and frisk, until recently a major driver of gravity knife arrests, 86 percent of suspects arrested were black or Hispanic.
The problem, according to defense attorneys, labor unions – even the state judiciary itself, in an official recommendation to the legislature — is that the law as currently written often ensnares working people who use pocket knives for their occupations. And while it’s rarely prosecuted this way outside of the five boroughs, under the unusual legal interpretation embraced by the NYPD and prosecutors in New York City, virtually any pocket knife can be shoehorned into the definition of a gravity knife, and therefore land you in jail.
While carrying a knife is not in itself illegal in the city, some categories of knives – including gravity knives, switchblades and some others — are illegal in any context. But in New York City, the definition of a gravity knife has been effectively broadened, in practice, to include almost any model an officer so chooses. About 60,000 people have been prosecuted under the law in the past ten years for knives that are not only commonplace but widely sold in reputable city retailers. Critics say it’s nearly impossible to tell what knives are legal and which ones aren’t.
A similar law in Baltimore created confusion after the arrest of Freddie Gray this Spring. The cops who took him in said his knife was illegal, but the prosecutor who eventually brought those officers up on charges related to Gray’s death disagreed, illustrating how nebulous knife laws can be, with minute aspects of design making the difference between legality and criminality.
In each of the last two years, legislation was introduced that would require a suspect to have “unlawful intent” for a gravity knife prosecution to go forward. The bills were designed to address what critics say is the biggest problem with the gravity law. Categorized as a “per se” weapon, any knife that fits the statutory definition is illegal, regardless of circumstance. Even having one within your home can — and has — resulted in prosecution.
Brooklyn Defender Services, a nonprofit that defends indigent clients in New York courts, expressed the problem this way in a memorandum of support for the legislation:
The need for this legislation is clear. Tens of thousands of New York City residents have been prosecuted for being in possession of — either on their person, or somewhere in their car or home — an instrument they use peacefully in the workplace, simply because it meets the vague legal definition of a “gravity knife.”
The city’s major stagehand union, IATSE Local One, has thrown its support behind the legislation in the past, as has the Legal Aid Society. The bills themselves were proposed by downstate Democrats Dan Quart in the assembly, cosponsored by Eric Dilan, and Dianne Savino in the senate, cosponsored by Bill Perkins. All of them are relatively liberal.
The dynamic is especially odd because New York seems to be the only place where a recent push to relax knife laws has found hostility from the GOP. Laws banning more exotic styles of knife like switchblades have been repealed in states like Tennessee and New Hampshire in recent years, but the loudest support has always come from conservatives.
The bill that made it to the legislature this year did pass the assembly, and the debate on the floor there produced some odd arguments from GOP members. Take this statement from Al Graf, a Republican from Long Island:
“I’d like to think by taking that knife off the street, just like you would take a gun off the street, you save somebody from injury, or you save somebody from being robbed, or you save somebody from dying.”
This would seem like an argument to get any potentially dangerous instrument off the streets. But Graf was an outspoken opponent of the 2013 New York SAFE Act, which came after the Newtown shootings and would have placed new restrictions on firearms in the state. Graf also employed some factual inaccuracies in his argument, asserting that gravity knives currently prohibited under state law are “a foot long.” In fact, there is no length requirement for a knife to meet the statutory definition of a gravity knife, and a wide range of knife styles – like the ones pictured on this page — are routinely charged as such.
Graf was not the only gun rights supporting lawmaker who opposed the bill. Assemblymen Gary Finch, Steven Hawley and Marc Butler, all of whom are members of the Republican leadership — and all of whom attached their names to legislation to roll back the SAFE Act — also voted to maintain the gravity knife law as it is.
A version of the bill did pass the assembly on June 10, but died in the Republican-controlled senate codes committee. The chairman of that committee, Mike Nozzolio, apparently didn’t think it warranted a vote by the full chamber. Nozzolio did not respond to repeated calls for comment.
So what is the opposition about? It’s not exactly clear, but one Republican who voted against the bill in the assembly, Joseph Saladino of Long Island, gave a hint in his statement on the assembly floor, noting that the New York State Police Council has opposed the measure. And sources in the senate tell the Voice that the bill has been quietly opposed by district attorneys in the five boroughs as well, though apparently not publicly. The New York State District Attorney’s Association says they haven’t taken an official position.
Jon Campbell is a staff writer for the Voice, covering criminal justice, legal issues, and the occasional
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