The Legal Aid Society Calls on the State Legislature to Reform New York's Gravity Knife Statute And Stop the Unfair Prosecution of Low-Income, Working New Yorkers
WEDNESDAY, MAY 18, 2016

Every year The Legal Aid Society represents thousands of low-income, working New Yorkers who are arrested for possessing common folding knives. Our clients are construction workers, electricians, custodians, stagehands, handymen and chefs who often struggle to keep pace with the cost of living in NYC. They use knives to make low-paying, physically demanding work more manageable. Their knives are sold at major retailers like Home Depot, Walmart, Lowes, Ace Hardware, Sports Authority, Dicks Sporting Goods and Paragon Sports. The knives are designed to be used for work, not for use as weapons.

NYPD treats common folding knives as gravity knives because of a loophole in the 1958 gravity knife law. That loophole has resulted in an explosion of arrests of low-income, working New Yorkers. Relying on NYPD arrest data from 2003 until 2013, the Village Voice estimates that tens of thousands of people have been arrested under the law.

Many Legal Aid Society clients charged under the law have never been arrested before. They often spend the day or night in jail, are forced to make multiple court appearances, pay fines and complete community service in order to avoid additional jail time. Clients with previous criminal convictions face up to seven years in prison, even if they purchased their knife at a major retailer and use it for work.

Prosecutorial discretion is not a sufficient safeguard against unfair arrests, particularly in New York County. According to a 6-month data sample compiled by The Legal Aid Society, the New York County District Attorney's Office indicted clients for so-called gravity knife possession four times more frequently than all other New York City prosecutors combined.

The Legal Aid Society recently moved to file an amicus brief in the federal lawsuit Copeland et al. v. Vance which asserts that the NYPD and the New York County District Attorney have applied the statute in a way that renders it void for vagueness, making it impossible for law-abiding citizens to follow. The Legal Aid Society amicus includes video interviews with clients who have been ensnared by the law:

The Legal Aid Society joins a broad coalition of advocacy groups in calling for reform to New York State's gravity knife statute to prevent the continued arrest and prosecution of low-income, working New Yorkers. We support legislation introduced by Assemblyman Dan Quart and Senator Dianne Savino. That legislation fixes the loophole exploited by NYPD. Under the proposed legislation, common folding knives that have a bias toward closure will be treated as work tools, not weapons and New Yorkers will be free to work, not face jail time.