In what has started to become a yearly ritual, Assemblyman Dan Quart is once again trying to work with lawmakers in Albany to fix an antiquated knife law that has landed tens of thousands of New Yorkers in jail over the past decade.
Quart, who represents the Upper East Side’s 73rd district, has introduced new legislation to prevent what many critics charge is the abuse of the state’s half-century old “gravity knife” law. You remember this law — it’s the one that allows police officers to arrest unsuspecting tradesmen who carry legally purchased knives on their way too and from work. Under the NYPD’s peculiar interpretation of the statute — which was enacted in the 1950s as a response to national hysteria over the proliferation of youth gangs — any knife that can be opened with the flick of a wrist is considered a “gravity knife.” The problem with that interpretation is that it can be applied to virtually any folding knife on the market today, including the vast majority of pocket knives sold legally in hardware and sporting good shops throughout the city.
The result, Quart says, is that people who had no intention of purchasing an illegal knife can easily be caught unaware. And when they are, they often go to jail.
“The moment they step out of their homes, or even out of a hardware store they can be stopped, frisked and arrested,” Quart says. In essence, a knife that was legal when purchased can immediately become illegal — and an older knife with a loose hinge can suddenly become a crime to possess, even within one’s home.
Quart’s bill would alter the law to clarify that folding knives with spring pressure that tends to keep their blades in a closed position do not qualify as gravity knives. Most modern pocket knives are engineered with such a “bias toward closure,” so the language would effectively end the most egregious arrests. It mimics a change made at the federal level in 2009 to address similar confusion in customs enforcement.
The knives most commonly charged as gravity knives in New York City are not labeled or marketed as such. True gravity knives have been more or less extinct on the modern market for the better part of a century. But beginning around 2003, the NYPD began aggressively enforcing the technical prohibition still hiding in the state law, effectively changing the definition of a gravity knife to include a far broader range of devices.
A 2014 Voice investigation uncovered tens of thousands of arrests under the statute that legal experts said were bogus. Our analysis of stop-and-frisk data also found wide racial disparities in those arrests — white suspects were routinely let go without even a summons, while black and Hispanic suspects were frequently arrested. Particularly troubling for defense attorneys has been the law’s so-called “bump up” provision, which can make possession of a “gravity knife” a felony punished by years in prison.
Quart’s bill would alter state law to clarify that folding knives with spring pressure that tends to keep their blades in a closed position do not qualify as gravity knives. Most modern pocket knives are engineered with such a “bias toward closure,” so the language would effectively end the most egregious arrests. It mimics a change made at the federal level in 2009 to address similar confusion in customs enforcement.
This is not the first time Quart has taken aim at the statute. He introduced similar legislation ast year —and the year before that — only to see the proposal die in a Republican controlled Senate. But the language of Quart’s bill this time around represents a substantial change from the last version; the previous language left the definition of a gravity knife unchanged, but would have required the possessor to have “criminal intent” for charges to be brought. He said he thinks the new approach will help overcome opposition from some Republican members.
Quart’s continued legislative attack is just one front on mounting opposition to the law. A civil suit challenging its constitutionality recently got a big boost after an appeals court paved the way for it to proceed in earnest. A spate of legal settlements for false arrest, amounting to nearly $350,000, have also increased scrutiny on police practices when it comes to the statute’s enforcement.
If history is any guide, Quart’s bill will breeze through the Democratically-controlled Assembly; what happens after that is anyone’s guess.