News & Politics

Knife Law Reformers Make Last-Minute Push to Stop ‘Most Discriminatory Criminal Justice Practice in New York State’

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A bill that would prevent what the Legal Aid Society estimates is “at least” 5,000 unjust arrests per year is languishing without Governor Andrew Cuomo’s signature, with less than a month before it’s set to expire. State and federal lawmakers joined criminal justice groups for a rally at City Hall Monday, making a final push for reform to the state’s much abused “gravity knife” law as time runs short.

An estimated 60,000 people — 86 percent of them Black and Latino — have landed in jail for knives that are widely available in city stores, and which were never supposed to be illegal in the first place. In some cases, the statute can be charged as a felony, earning defendants prison sentences of up to 7 years for simple possession. (You can read our original 2014 investigation and follow-ups here.)

“This is discrimination on steroids,” Martin LaFalce, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, told reporters on Monday. “Our clients are electricians, they’re stage hands, they’re custodians, they’re construction workers … they do hard work, work that requires tools, tools that are sold in stores, but are treated as weapons once they’re in our clients hands, once they’re in black and brown hands.”

In most parts of the state, the law is virtually never prosecuted. But in New York City, police have discovered that a skilled officer can open almost any modern pocket knife with a vigorous flick, even if it was never designed to operate that way.

“We’re calling on the Governor to look at this from the perspective of someone who has a lot of common sense,” said Senator Diane Savino, a Long Island Democrat and member of the powerful Independent Democratic Conference. She appeared along with Manhattan Assemblyman Dan Quart, who pushed the bill through the legislature this year after several failed attempts; Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, who called the gravity knife statute “exhibit A” of New York’s broken criminal justice system, and representatives from the Brooklyn Defender Services and the Legal Aid Society.

“Sign this bill,” Savino said. “Apply common sense. Allow working men and women to go to work in New York City and New York State without the threat of being arrested for just doing their job.”

Once the bill lands on Cuomo’s desk, he’ll have ten days to either sign or veto it. If he takes no action, the reforms will automatically go into effect. Rich Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesman, said the governor is “listening to the debate on both sides and the bill remains under review,” but declined to elaborate.

The legislation passed this summer would tweak the definition of a gravity knife; a pocket knife with a spring or “detent” that keeps the knife from opening freely — present as a safety feature on virtually all modern knives — would no longer meet the definition.

Since the bill’s passage in June, proponents have focused on gathering endorsements from a broad swath of advocacy groups. The list now includes the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; the New York Civil Liberties Union; the Legal Aid Society, New York City’s largest public defender organization; Brooklyn Defender Services; the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the Office of Court Administration, the official body of the state judiciary. The New York Times Editorial Board came out in support of the change this summer, and a handful of labor unions are supporting the law as well.

“You have to look at the scale and the scope of the harm,” Robert Perry, legislative director for the NYCLU, told the Voice. “And when you see tens of thousands of folks being prosecuted for simple possession, with no intent for harm, clearly there’s a serious civil liberty concern.”

The bill is opposed by local district attorneys, particularly Manhattan’s Cyrus Vance Jr., who quietly lobbied against the change for years. He and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill argue that loosening restrictions on gravity knives would feed an uptick in stabbings. The department has repeatedly declined the Voice’s requests to provide statistics that might support that contention. Savino said on Monday that she had also sought such evidence from the department but had been similarly denied. Former NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton has described the increase in knife crimes as little more than a statistical blip.

Former prosecutors have told the Voice that gravity knife arrests are little more than a way for NYPD officers to meet their quotas. Matt Galluzzo, a former prosecutor in Manhattan, told us in 2014 that the arrests can be tempting for a cop on the beat. “You don’t have to fight the guy, you don’t have to chase him … it’s an easy way to make an arrest. And they’re under pressure to make arrests.”

“To be blunt, this law is a way for the NYPD to make numbers,” LaFalce told the crowd on Monday. “It’s the most discriminatory criminal justice practice in New York state.”

Perhaps the most vocal opposition to the reform over the past year has come from Mayor Bill de Blasio. In a pair of letters sent behind the scenes, de Blasio urged the legislature to vote against the measure this summer, and he has urged Cuomo to veto the measure since its passage. His advocacy puts the purportedly progressive mayor, elected on a police reform agenda, in the odd position of opposing virtually every major criminal justice reform organization in the state. It also aligns him with people like Patrick Lynch, the demagogic president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, one of the letter’s signatories.

Meanwhile, de Blasio also finds himself at odds with at least some members of the city council. While she hasn’t been particularly vocal about it, a spokesperson for City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito informed the Voice that she supports knife reform. Ditto Councilman Jumaane Williams. “The mayor’s wrong on this issue,” Williams told us last month.

“The mayor of the city of New York, who’s really supposed to be a progressive, has lobbied, very intensely, for the veto of this bill,” Savino told the crowd on Monday. “That doesn’t make any sense to me. So we have a law that makes no sense, we have a policy that makes no sense, and we have a lobbying effort by the mayor of New York that makes even less sense.”