A half-century-old law, enacted to prohibit the kind of knives that Nazi Germany used to distribute to paratroopers, is instead being used to arrest ordinary workers who carry pocketknives to use on the job. In one instance, a 53-year-old handyman spent six years in prison because police caught him with the kind of knife that’s readily available at stores like Auto Zone and Home Depot.
The New York law bans “gravity knives,” which are defined as “any knife which has a blade which is released from the handle or sheath thereof by the force of gravity or the application of centrifugal force which, when released, is locked in place by means of a button, spring, lever or other device.” Luftwaffe paratroopers used to carry them because they allowed the blade to be exposed with a single hand — often with the flick of a wrist — rather than requiring an individual to reach out with their other hand and pull the blade out of its sheathing. If a paratrooper was caught in a tree, for example, this enabled them to expose the blade and cut their parachute straps even if they were too tangled to bring their hands together to open an ordinary pocketknife.
According to the plaintiffs in a recent federal appeals court case, however, New York City officials have reinterpreted this law to ban knives that the legislature never intended to ban — and that many workers carry to open boxes, cut wires or perform other basic tasks. In effect, they claim, New York City’s police and prosecutors have read the law to ban “any folding knife — even ones ‘designed to resist opening from the closed position’ . . . if it would be possible for some person to open the knife by means of a wrist-flicking motion.”
This has led to some absurd arrests, according to facts laid out in an opinion by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. In one case, an art dealer named Pedro Perez was arrested after police spotted him carrying a knife he had purchased at a Manhattan outdoor supplies store. Though Perez claims that “the charging officers were unable themselves to flick open Perez’s knife,” they still charged him will illegally possessing a gravity knife “based on the possibility that someone could do so.”
Similarly, an artist named John Copeland says that he actually brought his knife to New York City police officers on two occasions to ask them whether the knife was legal — the cops concluded that it was legal after they were unable to flick it open. Then, however, a third officer stopped Copeland and was able to open it by “grasping the knife’s handle and forcefully ‘flicking’ the knife body downwards.” So Copeland was charged with violating the gravity knife ban.
Perez and Copeland asked the courts to strike down New York City’s interpretation of this law as unconstitutionally vague. The Second Circuit, however, did not reach the merits of this case, instead merely holding that Perez, Copeland and a New York knife retailer have legal standing to bring their lawsuit. The merits of the case will be taken up by a trial court.
An analysis conducted by the Village Voice estimates that “there have been as many as 60,000 gravity-knife prosecutions over the past decade, and that the rate has more than doubled in that time.” Indeed, if this estimate is accurate, “it’s enough to place gravity-knife offenses among the top 10 most prosecuted crimes in New York City.”
The Village Voice also suggests one possible reason why these arrests have proliferated. Officers are under significant pressure to rack up arrests. As one officer told a rookie on an online message board for law enforcement, “be on the lookout for ‘GKs’” and “make sure they have a prior conviction so you can bump it up to that felony!!!”
(HT: Howard Bashman)