As we all know by now, New York City doesn’t like knife owners. The Big Apple’s misinterpretation of the state’s gravity knife statute, declaring the majority of common locking knives as gravity knives, has resulted in thousands of
prosecutions persecutions of law abiding citizens in the past decade. Some estimates put the number at over 60,000. That number comes from an article running in today’s print edition of New York’s The Village Voice, How a ’50s-era New York Knife Law Has Landed Thousands in Jail. No doubt about it, the current situation is lousy.
The author of the article, Jon Campbell, provides an inclusive look at the problems with NYC’s current interpretation. After introducing us to Richard Neal, a man who served six years in prison for standing on his porch with a common utility knife, Cambpell goes on:
According to the vast majority of police departments and district attorneys in New York State — not to mention knife manufacturers, labor unions, and almost everyone else who knows a thing about knives — what Neal was carrying was a perfectly legal folding knife. When gravity knives were banned under New York State law in the 1950s, the legislature actually had a very specific style of weapon in mind — a foot-long terror that bears no resemblance to a knife like the one Neal had. True gravity knives, for all intents and purposes, have been extinct for the better part of a century; today they’re relegated mostly to the antiques section on eBay. [emphasis added]
Nonetheless, under the department’s unique interpretation of Penal Code 265.01, almost every pocketknife on the market today can be considered a gravity knife. It’s as if authorities in New York City were using an antiquated law against flintlock muskets to prosecute BB-gun owners.
Zing! Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
At the heart of the matter is the NYPD’s use of a “wrist-flick” to determine if a knife is a gravity knife, or far less often, not, which would make virtually every locking knife in the country a gravity knife. As Campbell explains…
The problem… is that with enough force, and enough practice, virtually any pocketknife can be flicked open like a “gravity knife,” whether it was designed to operate that way or not.
Simple wear-and-tear compounds the problem, [attorney Hara] Robrish found. After years of use, the hinge of a knife has a tendency to loosen up; a knife that was perfectly legal when it was purchased could actually become illegal over time. A quarter-turn of a screw is all it takes for a worn-out knife to become a potential felony.
What I find most encouraging about the article however, is that it highlights the growing trend against NYC’s interpretation of the law.
New York’s gravity-knife law has been formally opposed by a broad swath of the legal community. Elected officials call the statute “flawed” and “unfair.” Defense attorneys call it “outrageous” and “ridiculous” — or worse. Labor unions, which have seen a parade of members arrested for tools they use on the job, say the law is woefully outdated. Even the Office of Court Administration — the official body of the New York State judiciary — says the law is unjustly enforced and needs to change. They’ve petitioned the legislature to do just that. [emphasis added]
Not that it has done any good as of yet. A bill to change the language of the gravity knife statute to require proof of “unlawful intent” is currently dead in the water in the state senate. Baby steps.
There are a lot more gems like the ones above in the source article. Campbell touches on a wide range of subjects, from stop-and-frisk to government corruption, economic and racial disparities, LEO abuse, bipartisan opposition, and even judicial incompetence–far too numerous for me to highlight all of them here. It is thoroughly researched and very informative. Consider it suggested reading.
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