Democratic lawmakers in Albany are once again trying to reform New York State’s broadly criticized “gravity knife” law, seeing new urgency in an era when even minor arrests can lead to serious immigration consequences.
With little change in the political dynamics surrounding the issue, the latest push sets the stage for a public relations battle between reformers and law enforcement voices aligned with Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was among the fiercest critics of similar reforms offered last year.
Assemblyman Dan Quart, a Manhattan Democrat, has sponsored amendments to the half-century-old statute for the past four years. He says that Donald Trump’s ramped-up deportation efforts make now the time to fix a broken law.
“Arrests and convictions, of any type, for possession of what’s described as a gravity knife now have immigration status effects that they did not have before Trump was sworn in,” Quart said. “Each and every year, the racial disparity gets worse and worse, and the need for this legislation hasn’t dissipated over time, it’s only increased.”
Opposition to the gravity knife law has been building for years, and it reached a climax in the last legislative session. Enacted more than sixty years ago, the law was originally intended to ban large, switchblade-like knives. But the NYPD and local prosecutors, particularly in Manhattan, have more recently applied the law to common folding blades of a type widely available at hardware and outdoor retailers throughout the city.
As the courts have interpreted the language of the law, any knife that can be “flicked” open with a snap of the wrist — which is the case for virtually any folding knife — can be considered illegal. More than 60,000 people have been arrested under the statute in the past decade; the vast majority have been people of color, and they’ve almost exclusively been arrested in the five boroughs. (Background, and our original 2014 investigation into the issue, can be found here and here.)
The bill Quart introduced last session had broad support in the criminal justice reform community but was the subject of strong opposition from de Blasio and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. According to Legal Aid Society statistics, Vance prosecutes more people under the law than all other New York City D.A.s combined.
Passed overwhelmingly in the legislature, the measure eventually drew an eleventh-hour veto from Governor Andrew Cuomo. While calling the law “absurd” in its present form, Cuomo’s veto statement said that he was open to a compromise measure but believed the bill in its previous form would cause confusion for law enforcement.
The current bill has been significantly revised from last session and tailored to Cuomo’s concerns, Quart said; it would simply strike a clause in the current statute banning knives that can open by “centrifugal force.”
It’s that phrase, in practical application, that led to the controversial “wrist flick” test recognized by the courts.
“We believe that that change makes the bill stronger,” says Tina Luongo, chief defender in the criminal practice at Legal Aid Society. “We anticipate [this year’s bill] is going to have the same outcome as last year, which is bipartisan support,” Luongo added.
So far, that’s the case. The measure sailed through the state assembly earlier this month, with a single “nay” vote, and seems likely to pass the senate in the coming weeks.
But statements from Cuomo’s office suggest he’s still lukewarm on the prospect of signing the legislation. Asked about the new language, Cuomo spokesperson Rich Azzopardi offered a three-word statement: “We’ll review it.” De Blasio spokesperson Austin Finan was similarly noncommittal.
Vance’s office seems to be readying for a fight. In an email sent to Quart’s chief of staff, Amanda Wallwin, and subsequently shared with the Voice, a senior advisor to the D.A. wrote that their office “plan[s] to be more aggressive on pushing back against” Quart’s efforts.
Vance spokeswoman Joan Vollero said that their office had “been seeking to reach a consensus on this issue for more than a year, and our attempts thus far have been met with silence.” As in years past, Vance has offered alternative plans to prevent people from being caught up by the gravity knife law, which advocates consider unworkable at best, or a poison pill at worst.
Quart said he regards the various compromises offered by Vance, which include an “affirmative defense” for workers who can prove they use a knife at work and a potential licensing system for people who need knives at their jobs, as impractical, or even “absurd.”
“Nothing they’re offering would stop the arrest or prosecutions of people carrying folding knives,” Quart told the Voice. “For the thousands of people Cy Vance prosecutes, that affirmative defense could not be used, at all, until the time of trial. And 98 or 99 percent of these people never get to trial.”
Vance’s office, in its email to Quart’s office, noted that most gravity knife cases the D.A. prosecutes end in an “adjournment in contemplation of dismissal.”
“The narrative around gravity knives has been that people are sitting in prison with felony convictions for merely possessing knives on their way to work,” the email reads, in part. “And that simply isn’t true.” (The Voice has interviewed a number of people who served multi-year prison sentences for possession of purported gravity knives, including Richard Neal, who served six years in prison. Vance’s office litigated a similar case last year that drew a four-year prison sentence.)
Despite vowing to push back against what Vance’s office called “misinformation,” the same email contained several factual errors of its own, including a false statistic about knife crimes.
Knife crimes are “the most deadly violence in New York City,” Vance’s advisor wrote, asserting that “more homicides are committed with knives than with guns in New York City.”
In fact, according to NYPD data from 2016, the truth is just the reverse; nearly three times as many homicides were committed with firearms than with knives in that year — 202 compared with 72, respectively. It’s a pattern that holds true for previous years as well.
It’s impossible to say how many of those crimes involved purported gravity knives. But an analysis by the Legal Aid Society found that fewer than 2 percent of their clients charged with gravity knife possession were also charged with using a knife unlawfully. Vance’s office has repeatedly told the Voice that they do not track gravity knife crimes as a class.
In a follow-up conversation, Vance spokesperson Vollero declined to comment on the faulty homicide statistic, or whether those incorrect numbers had been circulated to other lawmakers.