The NYPD’s aggressive mis-enforcement of the state’s “gravity knife” law generally costs them money; at least $347,000 in false arrest and malicious prosecution settlements in the past five years, to put a rough figure on it.
But this past week, the department made a cool $18,000 from a man in the South Bronx for the dire crime of having a pocket knife. In a tweet sent out Sunday by Police Service Area 7, a unit that patrols public housing in two Bronx precints, the department gloated that they “arrested a male for a gravity knife and vouchered $18,000 dollars cash for forfeiture.” (Adding insult to injury, whoever runs the Twitter account over as PSA 7 decided to include an image of the arrestee’s car registration in their trophy shot, thereby publicizing his name and address, down to the apartment number. Without a more official account, we’re not citing that information here.)
Gr8 work 1×9 Conditions team. Arrested a male for a gravity knife and vouchered 18,000 dollars cash for forfeiture. pic.twitter.com/D8NGhu8sKf
— NYPD Housing PSA 7 (@NYPDPSA7) September 12, 2016
We’ve written a lot about the abuse of the gravity knife statute in the five boroughs. A law passed in the 1950s, designed to outlaw large, switchblade-like knives, has increasingly been used to arrest people for common folding knives. As is the department’s wont, the vast majority of so-called “gravity knife” arrests have focused on people of color. The result is that thousands of people every year are arrested for knives that are widely available at reputable retailers in the city, and which they have no idea can land them in jail. The law has been the subject of broad reform efforts in recent years.
The arrest by PSA 7 is an especially cute one, however, with the added forfeiture element. As the Voice has documented, the NYPD’s civil forfeiture program —ostensibly a way for law enforcement to deny criminals their ill-gotten gains — is in fact a revenue generating scheme that often robs poor people of hard earned money with no due process. Under New York’s forfeiture laws, cash and other property can be seized before a crime is ever proven or even formally charged. Recovering those assets, even when they’re never linked to criminal activity, is a byzantine process that victims often simply give up on. Similar programs at the federal and state level have become infamous as a tool used to prop up police budgets and distort the criminal justice process with a powerful financial incentive.
It’s not clear why the $18,000 was seized to begin with, and the NYPD didn’t respond to requests for more information about the arrest. But if it’s like the tens of thousands that have happened in the city over the last decade, it almost certainly involved simple possession of what appears to be a relatively unremarkable pocket knife, not a true gravity knife. Gravity knives are almost extinct on the modern market, and the knife in the image appears to be a rather run of the mill folding blade. (Commenters on Twitter immediately pointed out that the model pictured appears to be a style often carried by first responders, with a feature designed for safely cutting clothes and tangled seat belts after, say, a car accident.)
If the arrest turns out like many others do, it may end up in a dismissal of the charges after a probationary period, what’s known as an “adjournment in contemplation of dismissal.” But under civil forfeiture laws, that may not help the suspect in this case. Assets seized under forfeiture regimes are essentially guilty until proven innocent; even if the charge goes away, the headache of recovering the seized cash likely won’t.
The arrest comes at a particularly unfortunate time, because the law is very much in limbo right now. Back in June, the state legislature effectively repealed it, passing an amendment to the existing statute to fix its woefully outdated wording. The legislation as passed would almost certainly preclude this arrest. (There is also an ongoing constitutional challenge in federal court, with a decision due at any time.) Enforcement continues apace, however, because Governor Andrew Cuomo has yet to sign the new legislation.
In fairness, it hasn’t been sent to his desk, so Cuomo doesn’t deserve the blame. That lies at least in part with mayor Bill de Blasio and Manhattan D.A., Cyrus Vance, Jr. The latter has quietly lobbied against gravity knife reform for years, and the two have recently embarked on an overheated and at times inaccurate campaign against the reforms.
But at least the NYPD is clawing back some of the ducats the city lost on all those false arrests.