The following story has been updated to include a statement from the Manhattan district attorney’s office.
Documents from the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. show that a program used since 2010 to justify aggressive prosecution of New York’s controversial gravity knife law was marked by dysfunction and was, in its most important respects, never completed, or even begun.
Meanwhile, the D.A.’s office maintains it has no record as to the whereabouts of more than 1,300 purportedly dangerous knives seized from retailers in 2010.
The program — a high-profile crackdown on retailers selling such knives — has also seen hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding go unspent and law-breaking retailers go unpunished.
For years, the Manhattan district attorney, as well as other D.A.s in the five boroughs, has enthusiastically pursued prosecutions under New York’s gravity knife statute. Any knife that can be “flicked open” can be shoehorned into the gravity knife definition, a standard that can apply to almost all folding knives on the market today. While the law is virtually never interpreted this way outside of the city, under the unusual legal reading used by the NYPD and local law enforcement, almost any pocketknife can be considered a “gravity knife,” and penalties for possession can be the equal of having an unloaded, unregistered handgun. A Voice investigation last year found 60,000 likely prosecutions under the law between 2003 and 2012, a dramatic increase from previous years.
In many of the cases we reviewed, people arrested under the law were carrying tools they use for work and, almost without exception, were arrested not for using a knife in a threatening way, but simply for possessing one.
Prosecutions reached their peak during the height of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk blitz, when gravity knife enforcement was disproportionately used against people of color; black and Hispanic suspects accounted for over 86 percent of those arrested during such encounters, and white suspects caught carrying knives were almost twice as likely to be released as their black and Hispanic counterparts.
The law has been opposed by groups like trade unions and public defender organizations, which argue that it is being abused by law enforcement. And in 2013 the Office of Court Administration — the official body of the state judiciary — wrote in its annual list of legislative proposals that the law needs to be amended so as to protect innocent people from prosecution. But chief among the complaints from the law’s detractors is that knives that fit the NYPD’s definition of a gravity knife are still widely available from reputable retailers all over the city.
Suspects who purchase unremarkable pocketknives at their local hardware store are often shocked to find themselves arrested for a knife that was not marketed as a gravity knife; in many cases, they’ve never even heard the term before.
Those arrests of unsuspecting people have frequently been justified under the anti-knife initiative undertaken by Vance’s office in 2010.
At a splashy press conference in June of that year, Vance announced the seizure of more than 1,300 “illegal” knives from retailers like Home Depot and Eastern Mountain Sports. He also announced that he had seized $1.9 million in allegedly illegal proceeds from the sale of such knives, and had entered into “deferred prosecution agreements” with seven of those retailers.
His message to the public was clear: These businesses would comply with strict monitoring, or face criminal charges like the thousands of citizens his office had prosecuted that year. He also announced a wider effort against illegal knives, pledging, most notably, to launch a $900,000 educational campaign to inform the public about the issue.
The decision not to prosecute was, for some defense attorneys, objectionable in itself; why should the sellers of knives be given leniency when those caught with them were aggressively prosecuted? When the Voice spoke last October with Steve Pokart, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society in Manhattan, he called Vance’s settlement offer “incredibly hypocritical,” comparing it to arresting a heroin user while letting the dealer simply give the drug money back.
But it was action, at least. And if the public was aware that some knives could land them in handcuffs — or even earn them a multi-year prison term — the authorities would be on firmer moral ground when they aggressively targeted those caught possessing them.
Since 2010, those raids and the wider initiative have been used consistently to deflect questions about knife arrests in New York City. The essence of Vance’s argument — made both publicly and in court filings — has been that his office made a concerted effort to remove illegal knives from store shelves and to inform the public, therefore, that there’s no excuse for those caught carrying them.
But the attempt to stop illegal knife sales seems to have ended with that overheated press conference. As shown by documents obtained by the Voice, virtually none of the initiatives announced by Vance in 2010 came to fruition.
For example, no knife “education campaign” ever took place, and the vast majority of the $900,000 seized from retailers and set aside for that purpose remains unspent. As of September 2014, the last month for which bank statements were released by Vance’s office, the account contains $807,533.03.
The hard line Vance claimed to be taking with retailers also turned out to be less than stringently enforced. According to an internal report conducted months after Vance’s triumphant press conference, of the seven knife retailers required to sign deferred prosecution agreements to avoid criminal charges — a level of leniency not offered to suspects carrying those same knives — at least five were permitted to violate those agreements with no legal consequences. And perhaps most bafflingly, the 1,343 knives confiscated during the original investigation seem to be unaccounted for. In response to the Voice‘s FOIL request seeking “all records regarding the disposal” of the confiscated knives, the D.A.’s office wrote, “these documents do not exist in our files.”
Vance’s office declined repeated requests to comment on this article, but after publication the office’s director of communications, Joan Vollero, issued a statement to the Voice via email disputing the notion that the knives had been lost. “The knives are currently in a secure location maintained by the D.A.’s office,” she wrote. “Their location was never in question or jeopardy.” When asked to clarify where, exactly, the knives were kept, Vollero said, “they are locked in a safe,” before declining any additional comment.
Vollero’s entire statement can be read below:
You made a FOIL request for documents relating to the storage of the knives. There are no such documents that fit those requirements, which is why you did not receive any. To infer that means the City “lost” them and state that they have “gone missing” is incorrect and, moreover, irresponsible journalism. The knives are currently in a secure location maintained by the DA’s Office. Their location was never in question or jeopardy.
Despite apparently abandoning efforts to control the sale of knives it deems illegal, Vance’s office — and law enforcement agencies in other boroughs — has continued to aggressively prosecute people caught carrying those same knives.
Among other failures revealed in the records, released to the Voice with heavy redactions and significant withholdings under New York Freedom of Information Law:
The false impression that there has been a concerted attempt to take knives off store shelves continues to reverberate. In 2013, when lawmakers considered a bill that would have ended most gravity knife arrests, one lawmaker cited Vance’s crackdown as a reason to vote against the measure. Assembly member Michael Montesano pointed to the effort as an example of what should be done, suggesting that retailers should be more aggressively targeted in “other municipalities,” as Vance had done in Manhattan.
In one case we highlighted last year, which was on appeal even as the raids occurred, Vance’s office pointed to the knife initiative in his legal filings, highlighting the supposedly stern treatment of retailers to justify seeking a multi-year sentence in a gravity knife possession case. Richard Neal was 53 when he was arrested while “just talking [and] walking” with his friend. He wasn’t brandishing the knife (a nearly identical model is seen at right in the image above) or using it for any nefarious purpose; police described him as “very calm.” Yet he still served six years in a state prison for that simple-possession charge.
Documents filed by Vance’s office during Neal’s appeal process rejected the idea that he should have been given a lighter sentence, given how commonly available so-called gravity knives are in New York City stores. “Ignorance of the law is not a valid defense,” prosecutors wrote, before citing news reports of the investigation that summer; “of course, stores that sell unlawful weapons are also susceptible to criminal prosecution,” they wrote.
The legislature is once again considering a bill that would dramatically reduce gravity knife arrests by requiring criminal intent for prosecution, and an assembly vote is expected in the coming weeks.