The New York Times Editorial Backs Change in Gravity Knife Law
TUESDAY, MAY 31, 2016

A change in New York’s gravity knife law “ would help to reduce the number of unwarranted arrests without endangering public safety. A similar bill passed the Assembly last year but failed in the Senate. There is no reason not to pass it this time.”

So said The New York Times Editorial board in an editorial that ran in today’s paper. Last week, The Legal Aid Society called on the State Legislature to reform New York’s gravity knife law and stop the unfair prosecution of low-income working New Yorkers.

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.

The New York Times
New York’s Outdated Knife Law
MAY 31, 2016

Across New York, a law-abiding person can walk into a sporting goods or hardware store and buy a standard, pocket-size folding knife — and be breaking the law.

While exact numbers are not available, thousands of New Yorkers are arrested every year and charged with possessing a “gravity knife,” which the law defines as one that opens with “the force of gravity or the application of centrifugal force.” In other words, with a flick of the wrist.

In 1958, state legislators banned knives that had a blade that fell out of the handle when the user pointed it at the ground and pushed a lever. The same law bans weapons like brass knuckles and “Kung Fu stars.” But the modern knives sold in countless stores bear little resemblance to the knives that were the original subjects of the ban. Many people , including carpenters, construction workers and stagehands, have no idea that their knives can be made to open with a flick of a wrist — a skill many New York police officers have developed. Most don’t know that simply possessing such a knife breaks the law.

Between 2000 and 2012, New York City police officers arrested 70,000 people for violating the weapons law; based on a six-month sample reviewed by the Legal Aid Society, which represents indigent defendants, gravity knives account for more than two-thirds of arrests under the law. Most of these cases don’t go to trial, but the arrest itself, and the following entanglement with the justice system, can wreak havoc on a person’s life, especially a lower-income person who can’t afford to spend day after day returning to court. And while possession is a misdemeanor, it can become a felony if a person has a prior conviction, which could mean up to seven years behind bars.

In 2010, the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., charged 14 retailers , including Home Depot, with selling illegal switchblade and gravity knives, and agreed not to prosecute them if they stopped selling the knives, handed over profits from past knife sales and financed a $900,000 public-education campaign. Six years later, less than $100,000 of that money has been spent, and the knives are as available as ever. Mr. Vance’s office even granted an exception to Paragon Sports, a high-end sporting goods store that sells custom knives, because expensive knives supposedly aren’t being used in crimes.

But it’s not clear that illegal, cheaper knives are being used that way more than legal ones. According to data collected by the Legal Aid Society, in the second half of 2015, Mr. Vance’s office prosecuted 254 of its clients charged with gravity-knife possession. In only four cases was the defendant charged with intent to use the knife unlawfully.

The state’s Office of Court Administration has called for a change in the law, and a bill in Albany would exempt from the ban the sorts of knives that are widely available for sale and that the average person would need both hands to open. This would help to reduce the number of unwarranted arrests without endangering public safety. A similar bill passed the Assembly last year but failed in the Senate. There is no reason not to pass it this time.