Crain’s: Reform New York's Antiquated, Discriminatory Gravity-Knife Law
FRIDAY, JUNE 16, 2017

Assembly Member Dan Quart and Tina Luongo penned an oped in Crain’s urging the New York State Senate to pass gravity knife before the Legislature adjourns for the summer.

Reform New York's antiquated, discriminatory gravity-knife law
By Dan Quart and Tina Luongo
June 16, 2017

Last month, the state Assembly voted 128-1 to reform New York’s antiquated gravity knife statute. In an era of partisan divide such wide-ranging support is rare, but for an issue involving rampant discrimination against communities of color, it’s what’s expected from a legislative body.

The legislation would fix a vaguely worded law that has criminalized working class New Yorkers and targeted minorities. As it stands, New Yorkers, particularly those of color, are at risk of arrest and prosecution for possessing common folding work knives used on job sites throughout the state. This is not a small problem; around 4,000 individuals are unfairly arrested and charged for this each year, with the overwhelming number of arrests being black and Hispanic men.

These folding knives are tools, not weapons. They are marketed and sold at Ace Hardware, Lowes, AutoZone and hundreds of other hardware and sporting goods stores around the state. They’re required for many jobs and used by electricians, carpenters, stagehands and numerous other blue-collar workers day-in and day-out. Stores sell them freely without any legal consequences.

Under a law enacted in 1958, any folding knife that opens from “gravity or the application of centrifugal force” is treated by the NYPD as a weapon, not a tool. Simply put, if an officer can force a knife open after multiple tries with the flick of a wrist, its holder is arrested and possibly sent to Rikers Island. And now, as systemized detention and deportation rises in the era of Trump, that could mean showing up on Immigration and Customs Enforcement's radar and being thrust into removal proceedings.

Horror stories from constituents, clients and others affected by this law reveal an abuse of discretion among the ranks of the NYPD and prosecutors. Police exploit the law’s broad language to cuff law-abiding citizens en route to their jobs, and prosecutors, namely Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, push for extortionate sentences for possessing a tool seen on construction sites as routinely as a hammer or screwdriver.

Last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio, former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton and Vance lobbied hard against reform and warned the public of freewheeling stabbings and other doomsday scenarios if change were enacted. They resorted to scare tactics, claiming that gravity knives are uniquely dangerous without providing any concrete evidence to support their position.

Here are the facts. We reviewed all Legal Aid Society cases involving a violent felony arrest over a six-month period ending Dec. 31, 2016, and discovered that a gravity knife was recovered in less than 2% of cases. Furthermore, data showed that gravity knives were used in a violent manner in less than 1% of cases.

Let’s put that in perspective. The following items were charged as weapons more often than gravity knives: kitchen knives, box cutters, glass bottles and bats.

Other items that were charged as weapons at similar rates to gravity knives included cans, crutches, belts and brooms. Should the city start arresting and prosecuting New Yorkers in possession of these items?

The bill now awaits a full body vote in the Senate, where it passed nearly unanimously last session. The Legislature should not waste any more time; it should send reform straight to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's desk.

We must not have another year of the NYPD and Manhattan district attorney ruining the lives of hardworking New Yorkers with discriminatory and exploitative enforcement. New Yorkers have spoken loud and clear through their state representatives and want change. The Senate needs to act on this and when the time comes, so does the governor.

This article originally appeared in Crain's.