Freddie Gray

Dropped Charges Reflect Doubts About Legality of Freddie Gray's Knife

The fuzziness of Baltimore's switchblade ban helps the cops who say they were enforcing it.



Of the criminal charges proposed by Marilyn Mosby, the state's attorney for Baltimore, in connection with the death of Freddie Gray, three are notably missing from the indictments approved by a grand jury today. The Washington Post reports that "charges of false imprisonment against three of the officers are no longer part of the case." That change presumably reflects the dispute over whether the knife Gray was carrying, which was the official justification for his arrest, qualified as an illegal switchblade.

Judging from the way police described Gray's knife ("a spring-assisted, one-hand-operated knife"), it did not fit the state's definition of a switchblade (as Mosby noted) and probably did not fit the city's definition either. But the latter point—which Mosby did not publicly address, even though Gray was charged with violating the city ordinance—is open to debate, which suggests that the officers who arrested him might reasonably have believed the knife was illegal. If so, they could not be convicted of false imprisonment, since to arrest Gray they needed only probable cause to believe he had broken the law.

As I have said before, the fuzziness that helps the officers' defense highlights the arbitrariness and unfairness of this ordinance. They may have honestly believed they were enforcing this law, but that does not make the law any less stupid or unjust. If a law is so vague that police and prosecutors disagree about what it means, it is absurd to expect that the average person will know when he is violating it. In any case, a man's freedom, let alone his life, should not hinge on the presence or absence of a spring in his pocket knife.

NEXT: Grand Jury Indicts Freddie Gray Officers

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  1. I don’t know whether criminal charges should have been issued, whatever their merits, but imagine if you as an employee delivered cargo in a broken condition to your client. You’d be fired and your company would be held civilly liable. And that is likely the best course of action against these officers, since it seems unlikely the prosecutor can make the charges stick. Of course, it’s probably easier to indict and try the officers than it would be to get them fired.

    1. I think a conviction is a prerequisite for being fired.

      Booyaah/ Unions

  2. If so, they could not be convicted of false imprisonment, since to arrest Gray they needed only probable cause to believe he had broken the law.

    It’s good to see mens rea still alive and well in our criminal justice system. But what cause did they have to chase him in the first place?

    1. Their trained knife-sniffing dog detected an odor of knifeyness.

      In practice, they’ll chase anyone who runs from them.

    2. He ran from the King’s Men. No innocent man would need fear.

    3. “Furtive eye darting”

  3. I’d be willing to bet that no white people with enough money for a real lawyer have ever been arrested for having an ordinary pocket knife. This is the kind of charge that gets thrown at poor black people who the cops and prosecutors know can’t afford to fight it in order to boost their arrest and conviction rates, even though they all know that it’s completely bogus (and most likely every single cop in Baltimore carries a knife just like Freddie Gray’s).

    1. “knife just like Freddie Gray’s” In many places, cops, firefighters, and other government workers are given exemptions to own carry auto knives, kinda how alot of places give cops exceptions to carry guns when not on duty, when they wont give one to “an average citizen”. I dont know if Baltimore does.

    2. Well, there is a lot of discretion in policing. I’m not sure all of it is bad, even though it can be misused. Is it really terrible that some lowlife sneaking around in backyards at night is arrested for possessing “burglar tools,” when a plumber or mechanic carrying similar tools doesn’t get arrested? I think that no matter how you write laws, individual police are going to make some judgment calls. The trick is to have police who make the right judgment calls.

      1. Yeah, I don’t think people should be arrested for possessing tools, regardless of how much of a lowlife they are. If there’s evidence they’ve actually committed burglary or were in the process of doing so, etc. then have at that. But if there’s not enough evidence to get them on one of those crimes, then I’m not ok with taking in them in just for having the wrong tools at the wrong place.

        1. Don’t leave out the last part. It’s tools+lowlife+backyards at night. I don’t mean some Freddie Gray type walking down the sidewalk at noon with a screwdriver in his pocket. Not enough probable cause. Even lowlives can use tools in legit ways. The setting is a necessary part. All three together vastly increase the chance that they are arresting a real burglar. (It’s theoretically possible that all three could have to an innocent guy, but that’s not the way to bet. Let the judge/jury sort it out.)

          1. And don’t change the conditions.

            Low-life sneaking through *backyards* will get you arrested – no tools needed.

            Guy walking down the street, is stopped because ‘fuck you, that’s why’ and is arrested because he has a knife that *might* be illegal, might not (if the cops don’t know, how are you to be sure?), is what we’ve got here.

            1. In this particular case, I’m not changing the conditions, and I’m also not arguing that it was a good bust. I’m torn on that issue. Partly I agree with you: I don’t like cops doing a FYTW bust on someone just because they don’t like them. On the other hand, they got Al Capone for taxes, and a lot of good, practical, unobjectionable (to me) policing consists of neighborhood cops who know who the bad guys are. They learn that from the local residents. These guys often have a long rap sheet (e.g., Freddie Gray). And they catch them on minor crimes because they can’t (yet) catch them on the major ones.

              I am not saying that that justifies whatever happened to Gray, or that this type of policing isn’t open to abuse. Just that when done right, it’s actually good. Flexibility can be a virtue. It’s exactly what the ideal, wise, experienced, beloved-by-the-neighborhood cop in an old Hollywood movie would do, and there’s no reason not to aim for that ideal.

          2. “Don’t leave out the last part. It’s tools+lowlife+backyards at night.”

            Clarify for me – what is the crime you think this person should be arrested for? Trespassing? Burglary? Attempted Burglary? Possession of tools? Your original comment made it seem like it was the last one.

            If not, I’m trying to see the relevance to this story, and to Ken Hagler’s comment, which are about instruments (such as knives) being made illegal. If so, I would much rather let the occasional burglar go in situations where there isn’t enough evidence to convict him of anything beyond possessing tools, than to give the police the “discretion” to arrest someone for possessing the wrong tools whenever they feel like it.

            1. The discretion I am advocating would bring charges depending on who they were arresting. 1) Kid with no previous trouble: lenient. 2) Kid with a record: more strict. 3) Known bad guy with a long rap sheet: whatever might stick.

              The relevance to Freddie Gray is his past record. Even though I believe drugs should be legal, I don’t want dealers and petty criminals hanging out on street corners carrying knives. I’m not saying he was Al Capone, but he wasn’t at all an accountant on his way to choir practice. He was somewhere in class 2 or 3, above. Either way, a class of people that police should keep an eye on, for the sake of the neighborhood. But it looks like the police went too far, intentionally or not.

              1. I’m sorry I’m not comfortable criminalizing things that shouldn’t be crimes and giving the police even more power to fuck people over just so they can “make something stick” when they need to and you can sleep at night knowing the bad guys are off the street.

              2. What past record? That arrest sheet the cops posted resulted in ONE conviction.

              3. “a class of people that police should keep an eye on, for the sake of the neighborhood”

                So excons will never be givem a chance to reintegrate into society? How about one group of laws for everyone

    3. Maybe not rich white people. But near where I live, a white person was charged with having “burglars tools”, which was a hammer and a screwdriver. this was not connected to a burglary. this was just a search after a random traffic stop. That is why I have told my white sons to never consent to a search. We have never taken drugs, nor do we steal. but because we like to work on cars and tinker with things, we almost always have knives and “burglars tools”.

  4. OT – Ilya Somin on the Tridentine Mass under Summorum Pontificum….

    Just kidding, he actually defends the President’s immigration order. He makes some good attacks on the constitutionality of the immigrations laws (how can foreign commerce include someone walking across the border?), but he also says the President has the constitutional power to forbid the enforcement of the law in particular circumstances.

    James II, call your office.


    1. You realize persistently joking about it still amounts to wearing it on your sleeve, right?

      1. You mean “persistently mocking F d’A for what is now a really amusing obsession”?

        1. I’m taking it back to the old school
          ‘Cause, I’m an old fool who’s so cool
          If you want to get down
          I’m gonna show you the way, whoomp there it is

          1. Amanda Marcotte called, she says you have no sense of humor.

            1. Notorious G.K.C.|5.21.15 @ 9:33PM|#
              “Amanda Marcotte called, she says you have no sense of humor.”

              Bill Maher called, she says you’re stealing his shtick. He knows it’s bullshit to claim it’s only a joke when you get busted.

              1. So, just to be clear, you think this was *not* a joke:

                “OT – Ilya Somin on the Tridentine Mass under Summorum Pontificum….

                “Just kidding, he actually defends the President’s immigration order.”

                1. Just to be clear, you were hoping the message was hidden by the ‘joke’, and no one was fooled.

                  1. Just to be clear, you are a paranoid jackass.

                    1. You guys, get a room.

                    2. I’m at a disadvantage because sevo has a Helm of Telepathy and I don’t. He can read my brainwaves and discern my *true* motives despite my denials. I lack such a gift, so I’m limited to responding to what he actually says.

                    3. Notorious G.K.C.|5.21.15 @ 11:53PM|#
                      “Just to be clear, you are a paranoid jackass.”{

                      Thanks, you ignorant asshole. Always good to hear from some stupid bleever.

                    4. Ah, your bon mots are reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s “sparkling wit and unbelievable intelligence.”


                    5. So you excuse your stupidity by quoting someone?
                      I’m sure that’s the best you can do.

                    6. You didn’t look at the video, did you? 🙂

                    7. Don’t make me stop this car! If you guys don’t knock it off, I’m not taking you to the waterpark!

  5. Narrow boxes with springs in them, evil. Knives with springs in them, evil. Rectangular bits of upholstery with springs in them, the embodiment of evil. Hooke weeps.

    1. I was told that you have a lube hookup.

      1. I use my stash to size textiles, not to facilitate Jesse’s sexlife.

        1. He already asked, didn’t he?

          1. Maybe?

            *Kicks away package, realizing that mailing white powder through the mail is probably not a good idea*

  6. Note that this style of knife is carried by most of the EMTs and Paramedics in New York, where the law is not “fuzzy” and it’s an E felony.

    All it takes for a knife to be illegal in New York is that it can be opened one-handed.

    1. Even a garden variety Stanley knife or boxcutter?

      1. Even a knife that the cop has to work at really hard to open one-handed. Like open and close it a few times to loosen it up and then get a really good swing in.

        Only has to be opened one-handed one time to get you a ride to jail, no matter how many tries it takes the cop to do it.

        1. Woot! Thug life! (There goes the economy!)

    2. That’s funny. The USAF issued me a switchblade.

      1. They issued you much worse.

        1. But I didn’t get to keep those.

      2. If you were still flying they might have issued you a submachinegun.


  7. All this because some people think this still happens.

    1. Without clicking on that, it’s the Crips and the Jets in a fight, with Rita Moreno (man I loved her) dancing… isn’t it?

        1. She lives in my girlfriend’s neighborhood (as does Alice Walker). I’ve never run into either of them, though.

          1. She’s even hot as a waitress; also, Morgen Freeman and his wonderful hat.


  8. As I have said before, the fuzziness that helps the officers’ defense highlights the arbitrariness and unfairness of this ordinance.

    Welcome to knife lore in ‘Murrica.

    RCW 9.41.250
    Dangerous weapons?Penalty.

    (1) Every person who:
    (2) “Spring blade knife” means any knife, including a prototype, model, or other sample, with a blade that is automatically released by a spring mechanism or other mechanical device, or any knife having a blade which opens, or falls, or is ejected into position by the force of gravity, or by an outward, downward, or centrifugal thrust or movement. A knife that contains a spring, detent, or other mechanism designed to create a bias toward closure of the blade and that requires physical exertion applied to the blade by hand, wrist, or arm to overcome the bias toward closure to assist in opening the knife is not a spring blade knife.

    Yes, pretty much all the knives in my house that aren’t cooking knives which were bought over the counter in Washington are, by my and the best interpretation of everyone I know, illegal.

  9. F d’A expressed an interest in the topic, so there it is:

    “Latin Mass resurgent 50 years after Vatican II”…../70214976/

  10. This is the leading edge version of “Assault weapon” for firearms which in practice means something that looks ugly.

    The base problem is like drugs or other laws which seek to criminalize objects instead of evil intent.

    I use “knives” for lots of applications while building things. Or cooking. Or even opening boxes. It would be convenient to have one which is easy to open and close, automatically.

    (Maybe I should just 3D print a servo controlled version that has no spring).

    No Spring. Where it is always winter but never Christmas.

  11. No joking, you *don’t* want to click this link. I’m not being coy, you really, really won’t like it and I refuse to be responsible for your reaction.

    1. I’m a Rick Astley fan, and I won’t apologize for that.

      But, when that dude started singing, you no shit made my kid cry.

      1. What can I say, I put all sorts of warning labels on it!

  12. Am I the only one who has noticed that everyone seems to be avoiding naming the brand and model or publishing a photo of the knife?

    1. The media is too busy covering Princess what’s-her-name in England.

    2. I see you’ve played knifey-spooney before.

    3. It’s probably not a Bushmaster semiautomatic machine-knife with a thing that goes up at the shoulder.

      1. With the bayonet attachment and a suppressor – ILLEGAL AS HELL. ON A KNIFE.

        1. Don’t forget the grenade launcher

    4. It’s CutCo, isn’t it?

      1. I knew a crazy guy who sold Cut Co knives because his Mom had killed his.Dad with one.

        1. That’s an outstanding selling point.

        2. Good to have a personal connection to the product line. Allows you to relate amusing personal anecdotes to a potential customer.

          Just one more arrow in the quiver of sales tools/tips.

    5. I asked in an earlier thread if anyone actually knew what knife we were talking about. I’d buy one in an instant if I knew what it was.

    1. You call *that* a knife?

      *This* is a knife –…..ductId=174

      1. Even better, a Knights of Malta sword:…..100147.jpg

      2. Somebody walking home from a warehouse job with that in his pocket, is now forever prohibited from ever working a warehouse job again if he’s caught with this in his pocket. Jobs for America!

      3. You call *that* a knife?

        *This* is a knife –…..nSly/Blade Weapons/Swords/Long Swords/Giant Swords/180513254_618483a71b.jpg

  13. Hey, it’s Miley Cyrus singing “Never Gonna Give You Up” in her underwear!

      1. “Competitive Foursome”.


      2. I WILL BE IN MY BUNK…….!

  14. “which suggests that the officers who arrested him might reasonably have believed the knife was illegal. If so, they could not be convicted of false imprisonment, since to arrest Gray they needed only probable cause to believe he had broken the law.”

    Ignorance of the law is no excuse!

    Unless you’re one of the government class.

    It’s just crazy talk to expect a cop to know the law. Citizens, of course. No excuses! But cops? Come on!

    1. The Supremes have already said that cops don’t need to know/be right about the law. As long as their mistakes aren’t unreasonable then they haven’t violated your fourth amendment rights. Only Sotomayer disagreed.

      1. Let’s see a “civilian” try that:

        “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I may have broken the law, but it was based on a reasonable misinterpretation…”


      2. unreasonable

        Spit up what you previously drank?

      3. So it was perfectly reasonable then that they stopped and searched him based on probable cause that he possessed the knife which they subsequently discovered on him which may or may not be illegal.

        1. I actually have a friend who spent several days in jail because he was accused of using a knife discovered on his person to cut through a screen and burglarize a house where he supposedly stole…that same knife.

  15. I researched California knife law to see what the options were for my girlfriend to protect herself from her neighbor’s dog. Unfortunately, the ideal options (swords, sword canes, large knives) were all illegal to carry as personal protection. IIRC some things were legal to own, but you couldn’t carry them for the purpose of protecting yourself, outside your home.

    1. Its weird how picky places can be about self-defense.

      You can’t carry those weapons *at all*, but you can get a permit for a pistol.

    2. What kind of a dog does your neighbor have that needs a sword to keep it at bay? Cerberus?

      1. How are you supposed to pronounce ‘sword’?

        ‘soared’ or ‘suhward’ ?

        1. Never watched a swashbuckler? “Soared.”

      2. Some sort of ill-tempered pitbull type that he’s very lax about, despite at least one official city complaint and a restraining order. Owned by an ex-UCB bigwig asshole who drives a Bentley. The dog hates strangers and is often unleashed in the yard, which is large but open in the front. The gf is no fraidy-cat, and is usually fine with dogs, but this dog does not like her, and it’s scores of steps up from the street to her front door. A mean dog like that could easily go around a long fence and catch her when she was in between house and car.

        1. How does the jurisdiction feel about chemicals? Some bear spray perhaps? Although, in my experience, over-spray and wind drift from such devices can be quite dynamic.

          1. I think she has a little can of something, but it might not be enough to quickly stop a dog that wants to chomp on her leg.

            1. Get her Halt (available from Amazon and elsewhere). It’s pepper spray designed to deal with dogs. Utility companies and USPS buy the stuff for their employees.

              1. Thanks, I’ll tell her.

    3. Swords and large knives are perfectly legal to carry in California. It’s a felony to conceal a _fixed blade_, but perfectly fine to carry it openly, and large _folding_ knives are fine too. The only thing you can own but not legally carry outside your home is a switchblade with a blade longer than 1.5 inches. The California legislature actually amended their laws specifically to take away the “confusion” that the Baltimore cops used as an excuse to murder Freddie Gray–there’s wording that anything were you have to overcome a “detent or bias towards closure” is legal.

      Mind you, just because something has been explicitly declared legal by the legislature doesn’t mean the cops won’t arrest you for it anyway if you have dark skin and they think you can’t afford a lawyer, because cops don’t care about laws.

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