New York City has paid out at least $347,500 over the past five years for false arrest and malicious prosecution claims related to NYPD enforcement of New York’s controversial “gravity knife” statute, according to settlement records obtained by the Voice under the state Freedom of Information Law.
The settlement agreements released by the city’s Law Department are only a partial accounting, officials there said, because of limitations on record search capability. But the sixteen cases — which cost New Yorkers an average of more than $21,000 each — offer a peek at the financial costs of the NYPD’s ongoing crackdown, which has drawn the attention of lawmakers seeking to roll back the prohibition, is currently the subject of a constitutional challenge, and has even been criticized by the official body of the state judiciary.
The gravity knife statute makes it a crime to possess any folding knife that can be opened with a flick of the wrist. First passed in the 1950s, the law was designed to ban a particular kind of now-obsolete knife closely related to a switchblade, but has increasingly been used to prosecute the possession of common folding knives. As the Voice has been documenting since 2014, the NYPD’s zealous enforcement of the law has led to the prosecution of an estimated 60,000 New Yorkers over the past ten years, many of them working people who use folding knives as part of their jobs.
Because virtually any modern pocketknife can be made to open with the flick of a wrist, it’s easy for an officer to make an arrest that will stick long enough to bolster his numbers under the department’s unofficial quota system. “There have been so many reports of people who possess ordinary utility knives, often for use in their jobs, and police officers literally just make up a claim that it’s really a gravity knife,” says Joel Berger, a civil rights attorney in Manhattan. The goal is often to “get an extra collar on their record,” Berger says.
Several significant settlements have already been reported, but most of the cases provided by the Law Department have not been described publicly before. They contain allegations of beatings in custody, including one suspect being deliberately thrown around a police vehicle during transport (sometimes referred to as a “nickel ride,” made famous when Freddie Gray died following a similar incident in Baltimore), and of illegal searches of car interiors. In one case, a suspect arrested on a gravity knife charge spent ninety days in jail because of a paperwork mistake; his home state of North Carolina falsely reported that he was under parole supervision and he was held for violating his release conditions, a mistake that could have been avoided if not for a groundless arrest.
Berger, who handled one such gravity knife case — that of Bernard Perez, which we reported on in September — says that while the NYPD is the source of hundreds of millions of dollars in settlement costs every year, the knife payouts probably represented only “the tip of the iceberg.”
“For everyone who sued and got money,” he says, “there are probably many others that just took an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal,” a common disposition in gravity knife cases, in which charges are dismissed after a probationary period.
One typical case concerns Charles Lupo, who in 2012 was arrested in Manhattan and who was recently awarded a $30,000 settlement. At the time of his arrest, he was working as a janitor at a public school in Queens. Lupo was approached by two officers in the Times Square subway station, who asked him about the pocketknife clipped to the hem of his pants. The officers took the knife, and while they were unable to “flick” the knife open — the only legal test for determining what is or is not a gravity knife — he was arrested anyway. The case was later dismissed on a motion from the district attorney’s office.
In most of the settlements reviewed by the Voice, the criminal charges against an arrestee were dismissed after the knife in question was found not to meet the statutory definition of a gravity knife. In some cases, there appears to have been virtually no attempt to actually verify whether a knife was illegal before an arrest was made.
In the case of Aaren Hernandez, arrested in 2013 in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, a plainclothes officer allegedly used two hands to open the knife that Hernandez volunteered was in his pocket, which would seem to negate any possibility that the knife in question was illegal. Hernandez spent a night in jail; after a series of court appearances, the judge trying his case demanded to inspect the “illegal” knife he’d been arrested with. The judge was unable to open the knife except with two hands and subsequently dismissed the case.
One settlement concerned a subject arrested in Queens after officers observed, clipped to his pocket, a sheetrock knife — essentially a folding utility knife — which he used at his construction job. He had no prior criminal record but nonetheless spent six days in custody before the judge in his case dismissed the charges altogether at his initial appearance.
“What’s actually happening, of course, is that police officers are committing perjury and lying on an accusatory instrument,” Berger says. “That shouldn’t be tolerated.”
The cases grew out of arrests in every borough, with three each in the Bronx and Brooklyn and two each in Staten Island and Queens. Five of the cases emerged from Manhattan.