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If there was any doubt that authorities are more or less making up New York’s knife laws as they go along, Jon Worthley is the proof.
He recently won a $7,500 settlement with the city for malicious prosecution after he was arrested for the possession of a knife that is so obviously legal it’s almost hard to believe.
The funny part is that Worthley was really trying to get things right. He knew about New York’s knife laws, and how, under the NYPD’s unique interpretation of an antiquated state law, a wide range of common pocketknives can land you in jail.
The law and its enforcement have been officially opposed by everyone from the state judiciary to defense attorneys, elected officials, and even some labor unions.
For an in-depth treatment of the issue, see our cover story from last month, Blade Stunner: How a ’50s-Era New York Knife Law Landed Thousands in Jail, Padded Stop-and-Frisk Numbers, and Brought Right and Left Together
Under the NYPD’s already strange interpretation of state law, any knife that can be “flicked” open with centrifugal force, and also has a locking mechanism, can be considered a “gravity knife.” Although almost no law enforcement agency outside of the city interprets the state law this way, law enforcement agencies in New York have aggressively pursued prosecutions against maintenance workers, artists, and many others who use knives in their day-to-day lives. Some have even landed in prison — for years — simply for carrying pocketknives that are widely available at retailers in the city.
As broad as the city’s definition is, it does require two specific criteria to be met — the knife has to “flick” open, and the blade has to lock into place.
Knowing all of that, when Worthley went to buy a pocketknife, he made sure that the knife he purchased couldn’t be shoehorned into the city’s odd definition. He went down to Paragon Sports, a well-respected outdoor gear shop in Manhattan, and picked out a Spyderco UK Penknife.
That model of knife, with a blade under three inches, is not only virtually impossible to flick, it also has no locking mechanism. It was designed specifically to comply with knife laws in the United Kingdom, which share some of the peculiarities of New York’s statute. In other words, this knife was deliberately designed not to trigger the law that has landed around 60,000 New Yorkers in jail over the past 10 years.
Even the staff at Paragon, Worthley says, assured him the knife would pass muster in New York City. And if anyone would know, it would be the folks at Paragon, which narrowly avoided criminal prosecution in 2010 for the knives it was carrying at the time. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. had targeted that store, along with giants like Home Depot and Eastern Mountain Sports, in a high-profile raid that year, accusing them of selling “gravity knives” and other kinds of illegal knives.
As part of a deferred prosecution agreement, Paragon was forced to forfeit an undisclosed sum of money, as well as a large cache of purportedly illegal knives. In response, they also overhauled their knife selection to ensure they complied with the city’s definition of a gravity knife, eliminating, with very few exceptions, any knives that could be flicked open and also had a locking mechanism. Their whole lineup, recently reviewed by a Voice reporter, has been altered to comply with the already controversial — some say simply incorrect — legal interpretation at play in the city.
Nonetheless, Worthley was on his way to meet his girlfriend, who was working at St. Mark’s Church, when he was stopped by police who were curious about his hand-rolled cigarette.
Worthley, wry and soft-spoken, acknowledges that his “goth” style “sometimes attracts attention.” He’s used to it by now. So he assured the officers that he was smoking only tobacco, and showed them the package the stuff came in.
One of the cops then inquired about the knife clipped to his pocket. He’d been using it earlier that night, he told the Voice, on a sculpture project in his apartment, and had forgotten about it when he left the house.
“He [the officer] said, ‘Is that a knife?’ ” Worthley recalls, “and I said, ‘Yeah, but it’s legal. I checked online, I checked in the store.’ ”
The officer removed the knife from Worthley’s pocket, and made several unsuccessful attempts, he says, to “flick” it open. This should have been a tip-off that the knife wasn’t illegal. Really, that should have been the end of it.
But then, Worthley says, the arresting officer used a “cheat,” one that many New York City defense attorneys say they encounter regularly: The officer subtly opened the blade partway with his thumb, and flicked it the rest of the way open.
That move is a fudge, because a knife that’s flickable only after being partially opened doesn’t meet the statutory definition of a gravity knife, no matter how broadly the term is applied.
“He said, ‘Now we have a problem,’ ” Worthley recounts, “and out come the handcuffs.”
Worthley tried to protest, pointing out that the knife had no locking mechanism, and therefore couldn’t be a gravity knife, but it made no difference. He was sent to lockup for an hour or so, and given a court date to appear for a misdemeanor criminal weapon possession charge.
Because gravity knife charges are so common, and because they’ve been essentially litigated to death, Worthley says his public defender urged him to plead guilty. But he wasn’t willing to do that.
“I just couldn’t do a fine and community service for something I didn’t do,” Worthley says. “I didn’t want to feel like a victim.” So he fought it. Three court appearances later, the district attorney moved to dismiss the charge.
But for Worthley, who describes himself as a knife enthusiast, just avoiding prosecution wasn’t good enough. So he contacted a knife advocacy group called Knife Rights, who put him in touch with Rich Holzberg, a New York-based civil attorney.
Worthley sued the city, and ultimately received a settlement for his troubles. He said he was just glad to have sent a small message.
“I was very surprised, very pleased,” he says.
The city’s law department declined to comment immediately on the settlement, and Paragon Sports didn’t return a call seeking their input. We’ll update this post if we hear back.
To read more about New York’s controversial gravity knife law: Blade Stunner: How a ’50s-Era New York Knife Law Landed Thousands in Jail, Padded Stop-and-Frisk Numbers, and Brought Right and Left Together