In my column today, I mention the dispute about whether the knife carried by Freddie Gray qualified as an illegal switchblade. Marilyn Mosby, the state's attorney for Baltimore, says it clearly did not, which means police did not have probable cause to arrest him for carrying the knife. Mosby cites "Maryland law," which defines a switchblade as a knife with "a blade that opens automatically by hand pressure applied to a button, spring, or other device in the handle of the knife."
But according to The Baltimore Sun, the police task force that investigated Gray's death "studied the knife and determined it was 'spring-assisted,' which does violate a Baltimore code." The relevant ordinance makes it illegal to possess "any knife with an automatic spring or other device for opening and/or closing the blade, commonly known as a switch-blade knife." Police described Gray's knife as "a spring-assisted, one-hand-operated knife," which does not fit the state's definition of switchblade but arguably fits the city's definition, depending on what "automatic spring" means.
Then again, Gray's knife is not "commonly known as a switch-blade knife," as Doug Ritter, chairman of the Knife Rights Foundation, notes:
While it might be possible in theory to interpret that unusual definition of "switch-blade" to include assisted-opening knives, such an interpretation would conflict with virtually all other switchblade definitions throughout the country. Additionally, the court documents show that the arresting officer clearly knew it was not a switchblade; the officer easily could have referred to it as a switchblade instead of accurately describing it as a "spring-assisted, one-hand-operated knife."
Whether or not Gray's knife was covered by the Baltimore ordinance, Legal Insurrection blogger Andrew Branca points out, the dispute on this point will make it hard for Mosby to prove that the three officers she charged with false imprisonment lacked probable cause for the arrest:
If the arresting officer(s) in Gray's case reasonably believed that the spring-assisted knife in Gray's possession fell into the unlawful category, then the legal requirement for probable cause in making their arrest has been met, regardless of whether upon later inspection and assessment the knife is determined to be unlawful….
If an organized task force of senior officers in the safety of police HQ makes a determination that Gray's knife is unlawful, no police officer who had come to the same conclusion in much less favorable circumstances on the street in the course of evaluating probable cause in real time is going to be held to have been unreasonable.
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."