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A New York appeals court heard oral arguments on January 14 in a challenge to a controversial knife law that has landed tens of thousands of suspects in jail over the past ten years.
New York’s “gravity knife” law was first passed in the 1950s to combat a type of knife — often quite large and resembling a switchblade — that was popular with youth gangs. In more recent years, however, law enforcement officials in New York City have been applying the statute to common pocketknives. It’s a shift in interpretation that is unique to the five boroughs and has led to the prosecution of as many as 60,000 people, many of whom carry knives for their jobs.
The Village Voice conducted a lengthy investigation into the enforcement of the gravity knife law in October.
An advocacy group called Knife Rights has been challenging the law in federal court since 2012, arguing that it is so vague as to be unconstitutional under the equal-protection clause.
Under state law, any knife that opens with the “force of gravity” or “centrifugal force” can be considered a gravity knife. In practical terms, that means any knife that can be opened with a “flick of the wrist” can be, and often is, prosecuted as a gravity knife. Thanks to changes in knife technology, the definition can apply to virtually any pocketknife on the market today.
Knife Rights argues that the “flick” is so dependent on the skill of the “flicker” that it’s impossible to tell which knives are illegal and which are not; a knife that may open for a practiced flicker may be impossible to open by someone less experienced, and might never have been designed to open that way to begin with. Defense attorneys echo the sentiment, saying police officers have become adept at flicking knives that even their owners wouldn’t be able to open that way.
The original gravity knife banned in the 1950s:
An attorney for the plaintiffs, Daniel Schmutter, summed up their argument before a three-judge panel on Tuesday, saying “there is a category of knives that is legal — we just can’t figure out what they are.”
So far, however, neither party has confronted that argument. The legal question at issue in the current appeal is whether or not the plaintiffs — Native Leather, a knife retailer targeted for selling allegedly illegal knives, and an artist named John Copeland, who was charged with possessing one — have “standing” to bring the case. The district attorney defending the city says that since the retailer and the artist aren’t currently being prosecuted and can’t prove they’re in imminent danger of arrest, they can’t show that they’re being harmed.
It’s ultimately a rather tricky and circular dispute: The plaintiffs say they don’t know what knives they can carry because the statute is so vague. Knives must be considered on a case-by-case basis, according to the district attorney.
Both sides received sharp questioning from the panel of judges, particularly from judge Reena Raggi. When Assistant District Attorney Benjamin Rosenberg said that the plaintiffs weren’t in imminent danger of prosecution, and therefore shouldn’t be able to sue, she noted that they had, in fact, been prosecuted before, suggesting that they could be again at any time. Likewise, Raggi sharply questioned the plaintiffs about why they can’t simply submit a list of knives they want to sell, and let the authorities give a thumbs-up or -down.
While the case at this point is focused on standing, the arguments sometimes strayed into the underlying question. Rosenberg argued that the law, far from being vague, has a very specific test. It’s just a definition that Knife Rights, a relatively small, Second Amendment group funded in part by the knife industry, doesn’t care for.
Rosenberg did seem to make one admission that many defense attorneys point to as a serious flaw in the law. Because a knife’s legality is dependent on its ability to be “flicked,” a hinge loosened by simple wear and tear can transform a perfectly legal knife into an illegal one. Defense attorneys say that exposes well-meaning people to arrest. Rosenberg suggested the remedy for that was to continually check and recheck the knife over time, an answer that produced a snicker from Knife Rights President Doug Ritter, who was present in the audience.
Greenwich Village–based Native Leather was originally charged with possession of gravity knives in 2010, as part of a major operation by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance. Vance raided a number of retailers — including giants like Home Depot and Eastern Mountain Sports — and accused them of selling knives that fit his office’s peculiar definition of a gravity knife. The retailers were offered a deferred prosecution agreement in lieu of criminal charges, but had to consent to a monitoring system and agree not to sell prohibited knives.
The other plaintiff in the case, well-known visual artist Copeland, was stopped by police for carrying a knife clipped to his pocket. Gravity knife arrests commonly begin this way, according to defense attorneys and court records. A discussion on NYPD message board Thee Rant describes how officers can be seen “stalking the subways between 5-7pm to catch a construction worker wearing one so they could get there [sic] number …”
Many defense attorneys and even the official body of the state judiciary believe that the law’s enforcement in New York City unfairly exposes innocent people to criminal charges. Arrests for simple possession sometimes lead to lengthy prison terms. In October, we told Voice readers about Richard Neal, a man stopped as he walked, with a knife clipped to his pocket, by an officer; with several prior convictions, Neal ultimately spent six years in state prison for possession of the 2.5-inch-long knife, despite posing no other threat.