The Unjust Law That Led to Freddie Gray's Death

If cops and prosecutors can't agree on whether his knife was legal, how was he supposed to know?


One charge was conspicuously absent from the indictments that a Baltimore grand jury issued last Thursday in connection with the death of Freddie Gray from injuries he suffered in police custody. The three cops who arrested Gray—Lt. Brian Rice, plus Officers Garrett Miller and Edward Nero—are no longer charged with false imprisonment.

That change reflects a dispute about the legality of the knife Gray was carrying, which was the official justification for his arrest. But the same fuzziness that works to the officers' advantage discredits the law they say they were enforcing.

According to Miller's report, he was patrolling on bicycle along with Rice and Nero on the morning of April 12 when they encountered Gray, who "fled unprovoked upon noticing police presence." After catching Gray, Miller "noticed a knife clipped to the inside of his front right pants pocket."

By Miller's account, police ran after Gray based on no evidence other than his apparent desire to avoid them. Then Miller saw something hanging inside Gray's pocket, but he had no evidence it was illegal and could not even be sure it was a knife, since it was mostly concealed from view.

The tool in Gray's pocket turned out to be "a spring assisted, one-hand-operated knife." Police charged him with possessing a switchblade.

Marilyn Mosby, the state's attorney for Baltimore, concluded that the arrest was illegal because Gray's knife, a type that is easily available and widely used by law-abiding Americans, did not qualify as a switchblade. Hence the charges of false imprisonment she filed on May 1.

Mosby referred to 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 Gray was actually charged with violating a Baltimore ordinance that applies to "any knife with an automatic spring or other device for opening and/or closing the blade, commonly known as a switch-blade knife." 

Judging from Miller's description of Gray's knife, it did not fit the state's definition of a switchblade, and it probably did not fit the city's definition either. Doug Ritter, chairman of the Knife Rights Foundation, and Evan Nappen, a Second Amendment attorney who has written an upcoming book on knife laws, note that spring-assisted knives like Gray's, which have to be manually opened partway before the spring takes over, did not even exist when Baltimore's ordinance was written and "have never been 'commonly known' as switchblades." 

But according to The Baltimore Sun, the police task force that investigated Gray's death concluded the knife was covered by the city's ban. This disagreement probably would have made it impossible to convict Rice, Miller, and Nero of false imprisonment, since that would have required proving beyond a reasonable doubt that they lacked probable cause to arrest Gray.

At the same time, if police and prosecutors cannot agree about whether Gray's knife was legal, how was he supposed to know? It is plainly unjust to punish someone with up to a year in jail, the penalty allowed by Baltimore's ordinance, for violating an inscrutable law.

Like so-called assault weapons, switchblades are banned mainly because they look scary, not because they are uniquely suitable for crime. Laws like Baltimore's add vagueness to arbitrariness, inviting discriminatory enforcement.

Knife bans give cops another excuse for hassling people they deem suspicious, who are disproportionately young black men like Freddie Gray. Last year in The Village Voice, Jon Campbell explained how a 1954 ban on "gravity knives" led to thousands of arrests a year in New York City, mainly involving blacks and Hispanics.

Rice et al. may have honestly believed they were enforcing Baltimore's switchblade ban, but that does not make the law any wiser or fairer. A man's freedom, let alone his life, should not hinge on the presence or absence of a spring in his pocket knife.

© Copyright 2015 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  1. He could have bought that at the local Wal-Mart. Or maybe even the CVS.

    1. Or at any Pakistani owned corner store here in Texas

  2. 4 different articles on the legality of the knife, seriously? Enough already jake

    1. Yeah, especially because the legality of the knife is irrelevant. Does anyone really believe that, but for his possession of the knife, Freddy Gray would have walked away from those officers unarrested? If you believe that, I've got a seastead i'd like to sell you.

      1. This. They arrested him for a knife that they discovered after they had effectively arrested him. He was going to jail that morning. The knife was a knife of convenience.

        1. Also, I have trouble with the idea that the legality of the knife should have a bearing on the charges filed. If the offenders were anyone else, Mosby would load up as many charges as possible, no matter how tenuous the evidence, to force a plea bargain. The double standard is not surprising.

  3. So, have we ever seen a photo of the actual knife?

    1. They won't release that because of HIPPA

      1. No, I think HIPPA covers only the rusty saw.

        1. What about the knife, lead pipe, andlestick, et cetera?

          1. Col. mustard in the library with the candlestick

  4. Honestly, if those law enforcement professionals had thought the chasing of Gray and the knife he possessed was going to be called into question, they would have designated another of the myriad of vague infractions on the books available to them as the cause of the arrest.

    My guess (and maybe it's been stated) is that it was some kind of high crime designated area and supervisors instructed officers to go out and make arrests there.

    1. Or just planted an undoubtedly illegal knife as evidence. That always seems to work.

  5. I have a hard time finding a good guy in this story. Freddie Gray was, by the accounts I have heard, a completely uncivilized thug and well known to the cops as a bad character. The cops had no cause for arrest and lied their asses off about nearly everything.

    A case taylor made for the left to use for rabble-rousing.

      1. Sergio Garcia

    1. My understanding is that all of his prior arrests were for drug "crimes" and that the vast majority of them resulted in no convictions. Did he have a violent crime record?

  6. New Jersey also has vague laws regarding knives. I once asked a cop who was in my martial arts class if the knife I was carrying, one-hand opening, clipped in my pocket with the top of the knife and the clip visible (concealed weapons are illegal) if it was legal or not. He looked it over, pondered it a little and says "I say legal, but, you know, it kind of depends on whether you're being a dick". I think that basically sums up the entire purpose of these vague laws.

    1. He looked it over, pondered it a little and says "I say legal, but, you know, it kind of depends on whether you're being a dick".

      If you kiss ass, then you keep the knife. If you fail to show sufficient respect, the cop steals the knife and lets you go. If you show no respect at all, the cops steals the knife and arrests you.

      Rule of law, bitches.

    2. "You mean, 'being a bigger dick than the cop', right?"

      1. I think you hit on something - its not about whether you break the law or not..... it is whether you piss of the cop or not, or if the cop is already pissed off that will ultimately determine if
        A. you walk away,
        B. are arrested,
        C. are beaten then arrested
        D. or killed.

        Sounds like a great criminal justice system to me.

    3. (concealed weapons are illegal)

      So you can't carry a pocket knife without a clip in NJ?

      My response would be that it isn't a weapon, I've never used it as a weapon or had any thought of using it as a weapon. It's a tool with many non-weapony uses.

      Not sure how that works with the laws. I guess maybe certain length blades are automatically considered weapons.

      1. If they say it's a weapon then it's a weapon, even if it's not.

        Back in Boulder in the early 90s, kids (late teens, early twenties) thought it would be cool to walk around with a cane. That fad was short lived, because the cops decided the canes were weapons and stole them. They said you needed a doctor's note to carry one, and even then they'd still steal it anyway. Because fuck you, that's why.

        1. amazing.... what will the make illegal next. ski poles on the slopes - you can do alot of damage with one!!!

  7. The cops didn't know about the knife until after they chased him down for running away from them, so saying the knife was the cause for arrest is bullshit. They arrested him for running away from them. If they hadn't found the knife they would have made something up. Being that he's got a history with the cops, I'm thinking he ran because the cops kicked the shit out of him on a regular basis and he just wanted to escape another beating. Unfortunately for him he wasn't so lucky. At least the cops went home safely to their families. That's all that matters, right?

    1. I keep seeing that same argument, that the "stop" was legal and the knife made the arrest legal. A "stop" is "Excuse me, sir, I need to ask you some questions" or even "Hey, asshole, c'mere, I wanna talk to you", they tackled the guy and cuffed him before they found the knife. That ain't a "stop", that's an arrest.

    2. Whatever you believe their true motivations to be, false arrest seems like a reasonable charge.

  8. The cops 100% knew that the knife wasn't illegal, but knew it was "close enough" that they could use it as an excuse for their actions.

  9. "If cops and prosecutors can't agree on whether his knife was legal, how was he supposed to know?"

    You are mistaking a feature for a bug. The law was very likely intended to make it difficult to tell if one were in compliance. It has certainly been USED in that fashion. Remember, the Liberal Intellectual Radical Progressive left LOVES vague laws, because they love centralized government authority. They like being the master class, making case by case exceptions for a peasant class that they could, should they desire to, jail en mass. And there are large segments of the Republican Establishment and Conservative Right that aren't a whole lot better.

    We need to rid ourselves of several decades worth of vague law. We need to establish as a legal principle that any law so convoluted of vague that it cannot be understood without expert advice is unenforceable and should be repealed. And we need to rein in the cops. Yes, some of the guys they jack up are young thugs, no better than they should be. But the cops need to actually have some evidence of wrongdoing, and not grab first and come up with a pretext later. and they certainly need a major attitude adjustment. Making them far more liable to be punished for exceeding their authority is another clear necessity.

    And as somebody who DESPISED the entire "Cops are pigs" narrative from the Left in the 1970's, I thought I would never say that.

    1. The rich write the laws to control the unwashed so the vaguer the better. Otherwise some of the rich folk might have to obey thier own laws. That was a joke folks. The rich and famous are generally above the law.

      1. Laws were initially written down so people couldn't claim ignorance. The laws were relatively simple back in those less civilized days in Mesopotamia.

        Now days we've written so many laws and regulations that no human being could possibly ever know them all. The vague language is only a sub-problem of that.

        There's a point where you have so many laws that you no longer actually have the rule of law, but purely the rule of man. Your freedom depends on the whims of the cops, prosecutors, and their robed brethren.

    2. Remember, the Liberal Intellectual Radical Progressive left LOVES vague laws, because they love centralized government authority. They like being the master class, making case by case exceptions for a peasant class that they could, should they desire to, jail en mass.

  10. First and foremost the legality of the knife is not the question. That is not why the police gave chase. The reason was some dumb black man had the nerve to to make eye contact. How dare some black trash make eye contact with one of our finest. That boy obviously needed a tuning up. Now to be more serious the racist pig needs to go to prison. Tattoo COP on his forehead and put him a black cell block. I don't believe in rioting or burning your neighborhood down but if you are going to do it go to the richest part of town. That would make your point clearer. And rioters brought into town from outside should be shot on sight along with those who are paying them.

  11. Not being able to tell if something you have or are doing is legal or not is just a bonus for those who like to pick and chose who they will prosecute. It has little to do with moral laws and everything to do with control of the people who are afraid of the laws.

    I know people who have said I don't know if its legal or not so "f" them, more proof that more laws do not create order they only create chaos and anarchy. I could probably create a bell curve of order vs laws.

    1. Anarchy? I do not think that word means what you think it means.

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  13. I did some research and (although I may have missed something in the process) discovered that "false imprisonment" is not a criminal offense. In the case of police officers it does give rise, however, to a civil suit for damages.

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  15. Let's be honest. They are disproportionately the ones performing the crimes...and running away from the police is a sure sign that you're a criminal.
    Acting like this guy isn't a criminal just puts this publication in the same spot as all the other media outlets...apologizing.

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