An electrician’s assistant arrested for possession of a “gravity knife” has reached a $57,000 settlement with the NYPD, after prosecutors admitted that the knife in question was not actually illegal.
Bernard Perez, 48, was arrested in September of 2014 after a traffic stop in East New York. After running his license, police claimed Perez had an active arrest warrant. It was only after he was hauled off to jail that police determined the warrant — which was twenty years old, according to Perez’s lawyer — belonged to another man. Unable to hold him on a faulty warrant, the officer named in the suit, Justin Delmonico, instead charged Perez with criminal possession of a weapon for the pocketknife Perez, an electrician, used for work.
The arrest is similar to the kind the Voice has been chronicling for nearly a year. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers over the past decade have been caught up in what many say is the unfair, racially disproportionate enforcement of a half-century-old state law that bans so-called gravity knives, or spring-activated knives that can open with a flick of the wrist. A Voice analysis of stop-and-frisk data showed that black and Hispanic suspects were nearly twice as likely to be arrested for carrying the knives as their white counterparts also caught with them. Despite pushback from the state judiciary, the public defender community, and Democratic lawmakers — and even a constitutional court challenge — the law remains unchanged.
The gravity knife statute makes it illegal to possess any knife that opens with the force of gravity or centrifugal force. As we detailed in a lengthy investigation last October, the definition is, in practice, quite subjective, as virtually any modern pocketknife can be made to open with a vigorous “wrist flick.” An officer with a little practice can therefore turn many legal knives into illegal weapons with a little effort. As Legal Aid Society attorney Hara Robrish explained to us last fall, “the police have become very adept at opening these knives.”
Perez insisted the knife he was carrying was not illegal, but still spent 48 hours in a jail cell. When the arresting officer was asked, at the insistence of Perez’s public defender, to demonstrate the knife’s ability to flick open, he was unable to do so. The Brooklyn district attorney prosecuting the case ultimately conceded that the knife was nothing more than a common utility knife, and dropped the case.
The NYPD consistently accounts for more settlement costs than any other municipal agency. Only days after Perez’s settlement was reached, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office released a tally of total settlement payouts by the city in 2014, which found settlements related to the NYPD at $216.9 million. That’s a dramatic increase from just one year earlier, when the figure was $138.1 million.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to reduce these settlement payouts. And according to Perez’s attorney, Joel Berger, the Law Department’s response to the suit indicates just how far the city will go to deny a claim, even in cases that involve obvious injustice.
“What we’ve been seeing for the past several years is that the city’s law department will say anything, just make up anything, to save the city a few bucks,” Berger says.
Even after Perez’s case was filed, and after the D.A. admitted that the knife Perez was carrying was not, in fact, a gravity knife, the department continued to argue that the arrest was proper. Acknowledging that the knife could not be “flicked open” when the case was being prosecuted — and was therefore not illegal — the city’s attorney in Perez’s civil case nonetheless maintained that it had been “flickable” when the arrest occurred. It had, in essence, become legal only after it was recovered and stored in an evidence locker.
Berger calls that argument “ridiculous.” “We’re talking about the physical properties of a physical object,” he said. To argue that the passage of time can somehow make an illegal knife legal seems a bit disingenuous, in his view. He also says this was the “worst example” he’d ever seen of the city’s refusal to compensate in reasonable cases.
Yet the notion that a knife’s legality might change over its lifespan is something numerous defense attorneys discussed with the Voice last year. A knife that isn’t flickable when it’s purchased can become so as the knife gets older — as wear and tear sets in and hinges loosen.
They say that puts New Yorkers who use knives at work, a contingent that includes many blue-collar workers, in the position of not knowing whether their knife becomes prohibited under law.
That uncertainly also figures into a constitutional challenge of the gravity knife statute that’s currently being litigated in Manhattan. The city argued in that case that the way to avoid arrest from, say, a loose hinge is to check and continuously recheck a knife’s “flickability.” In other cases, knives specifically designed to comply with laws like New York’s have still landed people in jail.
Ultimately, Berger says he was happy with the settlement agreement, but was disappointed that the Law Department pushed the case as far as it did; he believes the reticence to compensate people for bad police work can exacerbate tensions between the police and the community. And he thinks the gravity knife law is too subject to abuse.
“Most of the time they’re picking on working people; they’re honest, hardworking people who get caught up in this stuff. It’s just another form of harassment,” Berger says.
The Law Department declined to discuss the case in detail, saying in an emailed message only that “resolving the litigation was in the city’s best interest.”
Read Perez’s original complaint below.