Freddie Gray

Cops, Prosecutors Disagree on Whether Freddie Gray's Knife Was Legal

How was he supposed to know?

|

Blade HQ

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:

Wikipedia

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."

NEXT: Jacob Sullum on Baltimore's History of Bogus Busts

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. That quandary applies to about 90% of the law anymore. There’s just too much law, much of it poorly written.

    1. I really like the idea of having every law automatically expire after 10 years or something. While legislatures would probably just make it part of regular business to reenact most expired laws, it would probably help clear out some of the real clutter.

      1. Sounds like someone just wants to put spitoons wherever he wants.

      2. Combine that with a requirement that every bill must be read in its entirety in both the house and the senate before it may be enacted, including all referential material.

        1. read orally, that is.

    2. What else could you expect when they are all written by illiterate retards.

  2. What cause again did they have to search him in the first place?

    1. He ran away from them because he’d been beaten up by them before and didn’t want to get beaten up again. Only a criminal would do that.

    2. They were protecting the citizenry at large and by extention everyone single one of us in the Land of the Free (TM).

      Consider it the “For Your Total Wellbeing” policy, Fist.

      1. Did I read somewhere this was in a designated high crime area? I’m wondering if they had orders to round people up for whatever reason they could think up.

        1. That seems likely. Or at least orders to stop and search any tough looking characters.

        2. “Did I read somewhere this was in a designated high crime area?”

          Probably, Fist:
          “After all, police say, Gray was in a ‘high-crime area,’ which are undefined areas in the United States where the Supreme Court has determined the Constitution can be suspended because the standards for reasonable suspicion are lower than in other not-so-high crime areas.”
          http://photographyisnotacrime……ime-areas/

        3. Do they have designated “low crime areas” where crime is not permitted?

    3. That was my thought — what difference does the knife make if it was in his pocket and invisible to the cops who chased him down?

      1. *nods aggressively*

      2. Lesson learned.

        If you’re going to get arrested for carrying a knife, make sure it’s fixed blade and two-handed.

        Leave no mysteries.

        1. Wha? As long as the police REASONABLY BELIEVE it’s a one-handed knife, it matters not one white if it actually IS a fixed-blade, two handed knife.

          Perhaps they need to have orange tips…

          1. Fucking auto-correct. Although the race-baiting typo is probably appropriate.

    4. You’re forgetting that Rehnquist, O’Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas hate the fourth amendment:

      Illinois v. Wardlow

      1. Neither Rehnquist or O’Connor are on the court.
        Find a new boogyperson.

    5. resisting arrest?

    6. Freddie had been arrested for selling heroin using the same alley that he was in when the cops spotted him. So his response was not unusual. Run and toss the dope, preferable out of sight of the officers. Considering that he’d been arrested 4 times since the first of the year, and had pending court dates, the cops were well within their rights to detain and search him. Read his rap sheet.

      http://www.snopes.com/politics…..iegray.asp

      1. Cops should be aggressively policing our “underclass.” I have been close to our “underclass”- our lowest level SES demographic. Now, thanks to TV, anyone can see more than I have of that by watching one or two half hour episodes of “Cops.” There’s an ethically pure moral reason for aggressively policing our “underclass”-to protect the victims of the violent among them.
        Heavy “stop and frisk” policing reduced New York’s poor person murder rate to a few hundred annually, where the much smaller Chicago’s (my birth city) is in the thousands (with no aggressive “underclass” policing).
        Political urgency to not aggressively police the “underclass” clearly trumps that moral imperative to save poor lives. In contrast to that moral view, a political reason for very effective policing comes into play to protect the higher SES demographic levels. They would “fire” a Mayor of any city who didn’t protect them from the “underclass” All Mayors get this. DiBlasio and Emanuel will do without aggressive “underclass” policing, and put up with thousands more poor murder victims than aggressive “underclass” policing would prevent. But neither will let the harm seep into more prosperous precincts.

  3. 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

    “Fair’s got nothing to do with it.”

    1. +1 Unforgiven

  4. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Unless you are tasked with enforcing it.

    1. I’ve seen law school tshirts with that saying in the original Latin. I’ve always wanted to bust them in the nose as a response.

      1. New Amendment – Any law which is confusing or ambiguous to the layperson is void.

        1. Welp, there goes about 99% of the law.

        2. The lawyers who write the law would never allow that to happen. Job security.

        3. I think that law might be ambiguous enough to void itself, unfortunately.

          The state law actually seems pretty clear. It’s just pointless and unnecessary. There is nothing specially dangerous about a switchblade compared to any other knife you can open with one hand, or a fixed blade knife.
          Completely useless laws are at least as much of a problem as vague or ambiguous ones.

          1. Oh, I guess if it is an amendment to the constitution, it can be as vague as you want.

          2. Zeb, come on man! Do you really want thousands of Ponyboys and Sodapops prowling our streets with switchblades?!

          3. Jim Abbott and amputees have no need to use knives.

            1. I believe many if not most states have exceptions to allow amputees to use switchblades.

              Of course, having a one handed knife is useful for anyone.

          4. It was an Anti-Dago Law.

        4. Yes, and evidence should be either in the law itself, as judged by a jury of the very people who are expected to obey it, not judges, or by showing that multiple verdicts for similar cases differ wildly in their interpretation, or by any appeals court ruling which is not unanimous. This last especially galls me — if 9 Supreme Court justices, presumed to be the best in the land, can’t agree on what a law means, that is prima facie evidence the law is confusing and should be voided.

          And when a law is voided, all convictions under that law should be reversed, undone, expunged, and reparations paid by the State.

      2. Well, it is true, legally speaking.

        For a lawyer (or law school student), it probably is a good rule.

    2. Don’t for get about the judge. Those spineless cocksuckers don’t have to get the law right. There is an appeals court to make sure he gets it right. The Appeals Court doesn’t have to get it right either. That is why there is a state Supreme Court. Same thing for federal courts. The pigs don’t have to get it right either….as long as it is “reasonable.” (Whatever the fuck that is supposed to mean).

    3. Clearly it’s no excuse to the six cops now being accused of violating a boatload of laws, and their fellow Baltimore cops are about to find out how wrong you are as well, as their Mayor has called on the Justice Department to come to town and “weed out any racist, criminal cops.” No, it doesn’t at all look like those in Baltimore tasked with enforcing it are allowed excuses.

  5. I’m sure the city publishes easy-to-obtain information, that is readily understandable to citizens, about what knives are permissable within city limits.

    Oh, right. They don’t. Corrupt and the intellectually lazy people with power actually benefit from this sort of ambiguity. It empowers them to be capricious, and provides a convenient fog to obsure their cowardice and poor reasoning skills.

    1. I’m sure most of my hunting and fishing knives would be verboten in many cities.My chef’s knife would be a ‘K.M.D.’ ,knife of mass destruction.Then there’s my barber’s razors.

      1. A lot of places ban carrying of any blade over a certain length.

        The knife I carry all the time is a switchblade (or side opening spring activated knife if you are one of those people who insist that the only real switchblades are the “out the front” type). I have to be careful if I leave the state.

  6. So,they chased and tackled a guy to see if they could find a reason to arrest him? Sounds like they just want to sweep as many people as possible in the chance they will find ‘something’i so they can make a arrest.

    1. He ran away from them. That meant he was hiding something.

      1. They saw a bulge in his pants?

        1. They didn’t see anything. He made eye contact with them, then ran. Only a guilty person would do that. Just because he’d been beaten up by them in the past and was scared to death of them was no excuse to run away. So they gave chase and sure enough he had a knife on him. Turns out the knife was legal, but the cops felt that it was illegal. Being that ignorance of the law doesn’t apply to people who enforce it, the arrest was justified. And it turns out that the knife was indeed illegal because the cops say it was. Even though it wasn’t. Because, being ignorant enforcers of the law, cops get to make up the law. The people who write it and judge it may disagree, but that doesn’t matter. The law is whatever the cops say it is. Or something.

          1. You do know what I mean by ‘bulge”?

            1. You do know what I mean by ‘bulge”?

              https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xOB7lwue_r0

            2. You know what they mean by “Eye contact”.
              Maybe Freddie was just teasing the cops with his eye contact and bulge….

          2. Being that ignorance of the law doesn’t apply to people who enforce it, the arrest was justified.

            This. ignorance of the law ought to be less of an excuse for cops, not more.

          3. Nope!
            The cops saw him hand something to another person in exchange for some money.
            That’s when he ran and, because he wasn’t found with any contraband when they caught him, they used the knife, they legally found during a pat-down, as the cause of his arrest.
            As reported by a fellow officer, who spoke to those involved.

            1. As reported by a fellow officer…on Fox News, with his face hidden and his voice disguised, right? That’s the only place I’ve heard this account. Has it been corroborated anywhere else?

  7. “Should it really be illegal to carry a knife in the city?”

    No.

    But if it *must* be, start by banning this.

    1. Snikt!

    2. +1 Tobias Beecher

  8. In the Department of Coincidences, my stepson (also named Gray) was acquitted of possessing an illegal firearm (“telescoping stock”) because the prosecution’s expert witnesses all disagreed on what that term “telescoping stock” meant. Fortunately, the cops didn’t kill him.

    Nutty idea: Toss all laws that infringe the Second Amendment.

    1. The right to bear some arms…

    2. Sadly, we are probably stuck with a less than absolute interpretation of the 2nd amendment.

      It would be nice if courts would start to strike down some of the more arbitrary and stupid regulations like the “assault weapon” crap that don’t serve compelling state interests (or whatever it is a lawyer would say).

  9. These cops picked up a guy because reasons, and decided to rough him up a bit. Probably status quo for them. It’s just that this time, they fucked up.

    I’m beginning to wonder if cops pay any attention to current events. Like, at all. “Cop kills black guy” is kind of a thing right now. You’d think that the assholes who do stuff like this would back it off a bit.

    1. “You peasants can’t tell us what to do!” – Beat cop.

      1. Or, in copspeak

        “Civilian statements have to bearing upon procedural encounters on the street with regards to the health and well-being of the officers.”

    2. I’m beginning to wonder if cops pay any attention to current events.

      The only current events that matter are the consequences that their fellows face for disregarding the laws that they supposedly enforce. Being that those consequences don’t exist, the cops will just keep doing what they do.

    3. Ever met a pig that could read? They can’t fly either unless thrown from a helicopter.

  10. There is acrually a lot of ambiguity in blade lengths as ti what constitutes a ccw for a knife. It’basically whatever they say it is although I believe one locality lost a case on a knife under 2.5 inches. The case did not clarify what isn t a ccw. I think most pocket knifes are in the 3″ to 4″ range. There are a lot of 4.25″ models as well.

    1. A lot of state laws are really confusing and ambiguous.

      Fortunately for me, I am in a state with no restrictions on carrying any kind of blade.

  11. Should it really be illegal to carry a knife in the city?

    I’ll take Proggie rhetorical questions for a thousand, Alex

  12. Forgive my confusion.

    Does “spring assisted” knife mean that the blade snaps into position automatically? What does that mean?

    I know I have some folding knives with a latch that kind of snaps into place with a spring so you snap them in and out of the closed position. But you still need to use your hand to actually open the knife. Is that a “spring-assisted” knife?

    The picture sure looks similar to that.

    Also, I don’t know what the difference would be to a switchblade if the spring actually causes the blade to snap fully into place.

    Either way, it would likely take a jury only a few seconds to look at the knife and decide if it was something they would have in their toolbox or a “switchblade”. It just seems like the media descriptions make it completely opaque. Surely it shouldn’t be this hard to determine whether the knife was legal or not?

    1. Spring assisted knives are usually like the locking knives that you describe, but with a spring so that you only have to move the blade a little bit before it springs open. It doesn’t count as a switchblade because you have to move the blade to open it rather than just pushing a button or lever.
      I think they were pretty much invented to skirt switchblade bans.

      1. Ok, I get it. I don’t have any knives like that, I don’t think. I suppose it’s *possible* the cops might have thought it was illegal, but even then, they are still responsible for transporting him in a safe manner. Being afraid to buckle him in is not an excuse. Nevermind they had no probable cause to stop him and search him in the first place.

    2. A spring assist will open and snap into a locked position once you get it going with your thumb. You would only need to push the blade open an inch or so then the spring would leverage it the rest of the way. Hence “spring assist.”

      I personally carry Spiderco knives which are tip up and have a nice round hole your thumb can flip the blade open with. They also make a version that is designed to hook into your pant pocket as you remove it from said pocket, forcibly opening the blade into the locked position. It’s the fastest way to go from wearing to using a knife I’ve come across, and no springs are used.

    3. I usually carry a balisong (butterfly) knife. Fortunately my state isn’t one of the quite a few where they are banned. I live on a ranch and I have discovered that balisongs can be opened and closed one handed even when you have very little physical dexterity due to wearing heavy gloves. You can even use one with mittens. This is very important to me in the winter when I am trying to cut netting off hay bales.

  13. Why don’t they just be blatant about it and make “Running from the cops” a crime in itself? Then at least we’d have no doubt that we’re living in a police state (for the slow ones that still doubt).

    There’s pretty much nothing that can’t be made worse by more “well-intentioned” laws.

    1. I once saw a segment from the show “Cops” where a kid was riding a bike down the street when a cruiser rolled by. The cop slowed and looked at the kid who immediately took off. Predictably the cop chased him. As the cameraman caught up after the cop tackled the kid the two were yelling back and forth at each other:

      “Why are you chasing me?!?”
      and
      “Why are you running?!?”

      What came first, the chicken or the egg?

  14. If you think that the invitatin to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement is a bug rather than a feature, you have failed to understand how the establishment elite’s minds work.

  15. It’s irrelevant. Even if someone is carrying an ‘illegal’ knife, that doesn’t give cops a right to kill that person.

    And just why is this knife illegal? Maybe the guy lived in a neighborhood where he felt the need to be able to defend himself. I know one of the goals of the progressive left is to make it illegal to have a means to defend yourself, but that goal is twisted and evil.

    1. Or maybe he needed to open boxes or cut things. It’s dumb to assume that any kind of pocket knife is being carried as a weapon. It always amazes me when people act surprised that I always carry a knife with me. It’s a tool that I use many times each day. How can anyone not carry a knife?

      1. My version of liberty dictates that until he does harm to or attempts to do harm to another person or their property, with that knife, then he is innocent of any crime and the knife itself is an inanimate object incapable of doing harm.

  16. So, all this talk about the confusion about the knife being legal or not reminded me of the below story. It’s sounds to me like they may be using the same tactic.

    http://blogs.villagevoice.com/…..o_when.php

    “Vogel knew his knife was legal. He had done his homework and researched New York’s laws. “I didn’t want to be carrying an illegal knife,” Vogel says, so he’d checked out the rules when he got it.”

    “It looked like a magic trick,” Vogel says of the officer’s move. “That’s the best way I can describe it. It looked like magic.” To Vogel, it seemed obvious that this officer had done this before. “It’s something that this guy has obviously practiced a lot.”

  17. 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:

    That’s a coincidence.

    1. 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:

      I think they lacked probable cause for the initial pursuit and search, which in turns invalidates the arrest.

  18. If a group of lawyers can’t figure it out, its clearly Common Sense regulation.

    1. Common Sense regulation is regulation that a group of lawyers cannot figure out, therefore, can be interpreted in any way desired. That’s intentional.

  19. Gray could have been on Flakka. If he was, then he could have thrown this knife like a boomerang, taking out an entire precincts of America’s beloved heroes all in one swoop. Then he would have climbed the tallest building in Baltimore and played like King Kong, hurling the ornamental gargoyles like missiles into the streets full of good citizens below. Good thing they took this potential super villain off the streets.

  20. I’m curious as to whether these knife bans have ever been challenged under the 2A.

    Because they sure seem like a per se violation of the right to keep and bear arms, to me.

  21. Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this – 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link,
    Go to tech tab for work detail ??????????????? http://www.jobsfish.com

  22. This is what the good people of Maryland and Baltimore WANTED. The politicians who wrote an enacted that law and put that enforcement on the police were elected by the good citizens of Marland and Baltimore. No sympathy.

  23. “Knives Are the New Guns in Lawmakers’ Second-Amendment Expansion”

    “Blades are among the oldest weapons, with some dating to the Stone Age. Many modern restrictions are rooted in Reconstruction and were designed to keep weapons from newly freed slaves, according to David Kopel, a Denver University law professor who has studied the Second Amendment as it relates to knives.”

    http://www.bloomberg.com/polit…..-expansion

  24. We don’t have this problem in Seattle. If the police see you carving wood with a knife, they shoot first and examine the knife later. (It was legal, btw.)

  25. Dumb laws enforced by even dumber thugs.

  26. “Charm City” is not particularly charming.
    BTW, some courts have held that the noun “arms” as in “keep and bear arms” includes edged-weapons. At the time the Bill of Rights was written, it would be rare for any man to go out and about without some form of edged weapon upon his person; from the large knives and tomahawks of the frontier, to the genteel swords of dandies in the cities.
    Just as CA and others have produced handbooks delineating with pix and text what is an “assault weapon” for the clarification of police, prosecutors, and civilians alike, it might be prudent if the MD AG would endeavor to do the same in defining what is and is not an illegal edged-weapon in that jurisdiction. Or, they could do what TN has done, “legalize” all knives and end the controversy.
    It should be what you do with a tool that makes you a criminal, not the tool itself.

  27. I did not read anywhere that the death penalty was applicable for possessing a knife of any sort, nor was there a reason to pursue Gray because the knife was not in his hands and they had no reasonable cause to stop him. They did not know he possessed anything in his pockets. Eye contact or avoiding eye contact is not probable cause, never was, never will be.

    Furthermore, subjecting him to a ‘nickel ride’ or a ‘rough ride’ was also uncalled for- as there was nothing that gave the cops the right to abuse him on his journey to jail, even if he had had a gun or a rifle or even a cannon. Cops do not have the right to be judge, jury and executioners, regardless of what some people believe.

    1. No, possession of the knife did not warrant his death, however, neither does it warrant trumping up charges that are based on a prosecutor who just won’t admit she made a mistake about an illegal arrest. Show or release the brand and model of the knife then there will be no question if it was legal or not.

  28. Simple solution…. show the knife or release the brand and model of the knife. The prosecutor says she won’t prosecute the case in the media but she already is.

    If the knife was illegal then she needs to dismiss some of the charges involving illegal arrest.

    Why waste taxpayer’s money with trials charging illegal arrest when she knows if the knife is illegal or not. If she pursues it knowing she is wrong and just not admitting it she will only make herself look worse.

    Supposedly 30 police officers were looking at this knife along with which of the arresting officers saw it. Did 36 +/- officers determine the knife was illegal. It is either a single action spring assisted knife or it wasn’t. It either looked enough like one for probable cause or it didn’t.

    Like the law or don’t like the law, it is the law and the prosecutor should know it. If not, she simply needs to look it up and read it.

  29. How was he supposed to know? Silly people, he did know.. and quite exactly. This is an advantage, knowledge, provided from being an established criminal, dealing drugs, with other established criminals, attempting to push the boundaries of the law as much as possible.
    This person was involved with spreading crack throughout his community and after some 20 arrests,

    That was how ‘he was supposed to know’, and did know.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.