Reason Asks: How was Freddie Gray to know?

(on the off chance you don’t know the difference between an assisted opener and a switchblade – watch the video)

I wouldn’t mind moving on from the Freddie Gray case. Charges have been filed, and the sausage grinder of justice has begun its machinations. I personally believe that the conduct of the officers likely contributed to Gray’s injuries, given the pattern of previous incidents of a similar nature in Baltimore. That being said, the officers are entitled to a fair trial and I sincerely hope that the trial is conducted free from undue political pressure. Every defendant deserves nothing less.

However, the case remains in the news, with new details trickling out. There still is considerable debate over what kind of knife Gray was carrying. In the initial police report, the knife was described as a “spring-assisted, one-hand opening knife”. As this description seems to not meet most legal definitions of a switchblade, and therefor would be legal to carry. This fact is the foundation of Prosecutor Mosby charging the officers with unlawful imprisonment.

However, back at police headquarters, a panel has determined that the knife is in fact illegal. Even if it is a grey area, an unlawful imprisonment charge would be invalid if the officers acted in good faith. Andrew Branca of Legal Insurrection puts it thusly:

“One can also imagine, however, situations in which a given knife could well reasonably appear to fall within the legal definition of unlawful types.  As a result, a reasonable officer might reasonably, if mistakenly, believe it provided probable cause for an arrest.  In this scenario the arrest, as an act of the officer, is lawful, even if later the underlying facts of the arrest are found not to constitute a crime (e.g., closer, better-informed, off-the-street inspection of the knife discloses it is, in fact, not unlawful).

In Gray’s instance, it is not disputed that possession of a “switchblade” knife is unlawful anywhere in Maryland.  It has been widely reported (and now confirmed, as discussed below) that Gray’s knife was of a different mechanism, known as a “spring-assisted knife.”

Both of these types of mechanisms have specific technical definitions that allow the well-informed examiner to differentiate between the two.

It is also true, however, that they appear sufficiently similar in operation that someone lacking specialized knowledge could easily and reasonably believe a “spring-assisted knife” to fall within the “switchblade” category.”

The indicted officers have asked to see the knife as part of putting together a defense. As of this writing, their request has not been met. Even if the knife was just a common assisted flipper, the point that Mr. Branca makes seems valid with respect to that charge. It would be helpful if a picture or model name of the knife were released to the media.

The fact that the prosecutor and the police cannot seem to agree on the legality of the knife in question leads Reason to ask how in the world Freddie Gray was supposed to know.

“If police and prosecutors cannot agree on whether Gray’s knife was legal, of course, it is hardly fair to expect the average citizen to know, let alone subject him to criminal penalties (a fine up to $500 and up to a year in jail under Baltimore’s ordinance) for guessing wrong. Furthermore, the fuzziness of this ban, like the fuzziness of offenses such as loitering and disorderly conduct, invites arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. The Christian Science Monitor‘s Patrik Jonsson makes that point in a story that asks, “Should it really be illegal to carry a knife in the city?”

Describing the tool that supposedly justified Gray’s arrest as “a short-bladed folding knife similar to ones worn everyday by millions of law-abiding Americans,” Jonsson notes that knife control (like gun control) has racist roots and remains a pretext for hassling young black men. “Too often we see an officer who may or may not understand the law arrest somebody for having an illegal knife that isn’t illegal,” Ritter tells him. “We too often see that kind of either blatant ignorance of the law or willful ignorance of the law, in an effort to abuse citizens’ rights to carry this tool.”

I agree with Mr. Ritter. There should be no knife prohibition whatsoever. The fixation on the carrying of common tools has led to a situation that has pitted the citizenry against the police, and has left the door wide open to abuse of discretion.  This unequal application of unnecessary laws leads to folks like Stephen Colbert to get a pass while someone like Freddie Gray is put in a situation that cost him his life.

Note: further complicating matters, the knife in the picture from Reason looks to be a Benchmade Serum. This knife, which was inserted for illustration only, is in fact a switchblade. This makes it infinitely more dangerous than any other blade. (do your homework Reason)


  1. STEVEN KAGE says:

    The bottom line on this issue is clear: The Baltimore City Code prohibition as written, is too arbitrary to fairly inform exactly what kind of knife is restricted either for COMPLIANCE or ENFORCEMENT (the restricted knife is “. . . any knife with an automatic spring or other device for opening and/or closing the blade . . .”). It’s impossible to tell whether an “assisted opener”, as well as a “switchblade”, is included in the ordinance’s restriction, and as such any arrest would have to be determined to be illegal due to the lack of fair notice, and any charges against the officers would also have to be dismissed for the same reason. A stupid law created a confusing legal mess.

  2. David says:

    One serious point left out of this post is the fact that the knife had zero to do w/ the initial chase (it was mentioned in one of the links). His knife was not out; the cops did not chase Freddie over knife issues. I have heard several explanations, some implicating and some defending cops, but because they saw a knife that might not be legal is/was not one of them. The knife issue is an after-the-fact defense.

    And the state better let the defense look at the knife. If they don’t it could be grounds for an appeal or used as a tool to distract & confuse a jury.

  3. Mike L says:

    I have read that regardless of the type of knife, he was on probation and a weapon of any sort was a violation.

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Reason Asks: How was Freddie Gray to know?

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