New York

Federal Judge Rules New York's Dumb 'Gravity Knife' Law Is Unconstitutionally Vague

Groups have complained for years that the laws allowed police and prosecutors to selectively charge people carrying common pocket knives.

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AMR ALFIKY/REUTERS/Newscom

A federal judge ruled today that New York's notoriously nonsensical law criminalizing "gravity knives"—which groups have said for years is used by New York City to selectively prosecute people, especially the working class and minorities, for carrying common folding knives—is unconstitutionally vague.

in response to a lawsuit by New York City sous chef Joseph Cracco, who was arrested and fined for carrying a pocket knife, U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty ruled that New York's law banning gravity knives afforded police and prosecutors almost unlimited discretion to arrest and prosecute people for carrying knives commonly sold in stores across the state.

"The court recognizes that the District Attorney must have discretion to prosecute or not to prosecute criminal matters," Crotty wrote in his opinion and order. "The combination here, however, of a statute that does not specify how Cracco can identify a gravity knife and a a practice of prosecuting possession of gravity knives in an unclear and inconsistent manner provides police and prosecutors 'virtually unlimited' or 'unfettered' discretion to enforce the gravity knife statute. Under such circumstances, and with the lens of Cracco's past prosecution and intended future conduct, the gravity knife statute is unconstitutionally vague."

The law was passed in 1958 to criminalize knives that rely on gravity to open and lock into place. It was intended to address knives modeled after World War II paratrooper knives that opened by depressing a button, whereafter the knife blade fell and locked into place by force of gravity. However, New York City police interpreted the statute to mean any folding knife that can be opened by a flick of the wrist.

As Crotty's ruling notes, a gravity knife, unlike many other weapons, is defined not by its design but by its function, as determined by the "wrist flick test."

Martin LaFalce, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society, a legal aid group that has released several reports on the gravity knife law, says in an interview with Reason that the Cracco decision "recognizes the basic principle that criminal liability cannot turn on the flick of an officer's wrist, and it's impossible for New Yorkers to comply with the gravity knife statute."

The law is applied almost exclusively in New York City and nowhere else in the state. A 2014 Village Voice investigation found that between 2003 and 2013, the NYPD made 60,000 arrests for alleged gravity knife possession. Eighty-six percent of those arrested were black or Hispanic.

In 2014, a New York City man received a $7,500 settlement from the city for malicious prosecution after he was arrested for carrying a pocket knife that he'd purchased to comply with the state's confounding laws, and which the staff at the store told him was perfectly legal. The Village Voice reported in 2015 that New York City paid out nearly $350,000 in malicious prosecution settlements involving gravity knives over the previous five years.

In Cracco's case, he was returning home after work with his knife clipped to his pants pocket when he was stopped by NYPD officers.

According to the court ruling, Cracco "had owned the knife for several years and used it to open boxes, to open bottles, and when working on cars and his motorcycle. He never attempted to open the knife by attempting the wrist flick test."

Cracco alleges that the officer who arrested him tried three or four times to flick open his pocket knife before finally succeeding.

Under today's court ruling, if a police officer failed to flick open a knife on the first try, the knife would not be illegal.

"Under the old standard, in theory a police officer could attempt to open a folding knife many times, fail every time, and then on the final time, if the officer was able to, it would qualify as illegal," LaFalce says. "To say that someone could go to jail under that standard is absurd."

Yet that absurd standard led to thousands of people a year being arrested and prosecuted in New York City for carrying knives sold in hardware stores throughout the city.

In response to these issues, the New York state legislature twice passed bills in recent years that would have rewritten the gravity knife statute, yet Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoed both bills.

The Manhattan District Attorney's office prosecutes the majority of gravity knife cases in the city, including Cracco's. In a statement to Reason, Manhattan District Attorney's office communications director Danny Frost said, "We are reviewing the decision."

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  1. “Shall not be infringed”

    All arms, including knives, folding or not.

    But then, it’s just the constitution, and that does not apply in New York.

    1. Or anywhere, really. There are laws against various types of knife and “martial arts” weapons all around the country. Has there been an actual Supreme Court case that exempted everything but guns from the Second Amendment, or does everyone just wink at it?

      1. Many states have repealed those laws and preempted all local/municipal knife laws. I’m not sure there are any edged-weapon I can’t legally carry in Georgia and its surrounding states.

        1. I think GA has a blade length limit of 4.5″

          Looked it up a few years ago. Don’t remember why

          1. Everything is OK open.
            12″ lade limit for concealed carry w/o a permit
            Concealed carry of Bowies, dirks, daggers, swords, bayonets etc over 12″ is legal with a permit (if required) from any of the 33 states with weapons carry reciprocity

          2. I think GA has a blade length limit of 4.5″

            But that changed in 2017.

            The Georgia Knife Law Reform Bill, SB 49, increased the blade-length limit for carry knives from five inches to 12 inches. So, now, it’s legal to carry, open or concealed, any knife with a blade 12 inches or less in length. To carry a knife with a blade longer than 12 inches, requires a weapons carry license.

      2. Knife Rights is responsible for almost all of these relatively recent changes. It’s like a one-man NRA for knives. Has Reason has covered this in depth somewhere? Rings all the bells: pro-liberty, criminal justice reform, bi-partisan…

      3. Check Wisconsin law. Individuals can lawfully carry any type of blade from a pen knife to a sword (it’s really open and includes automatic knives). There are exceptions for certain government buildings. Wisconsin DOJ claims schools are still knife free, but the text of the statutes does not seem to support that position.

        Wisconsin weapons laws are far from perfect, but they are WAY better than they used to be.

        1. I’m in Philadelphia, which I believe is fairly knife-oppressive, though I haven’t made a recent study. I would expect that this is another urban/rural divide, with rural communities being more familiar with edged tools like working knives, machetes, and pruning bills, and thus less likely to freak-out over sharp objects generally.

          1. Knife Rights has successfully lobbied a lot of states to reform their laws and, most importantly, preempt local knife restrictions. They’re the 2A group for things that stab and cut only I believe the “group” is an individual.

        2. Yes wisconsin is quite good, I have tons of autos (I thought there was a req about carrying an auto needing a concealed permit but maybe that was when i was in iowa)

    2. folding or not

      In the context of old adage extolling fixed-bladed knives; the court ruled that a knife that’s broken in at least two different senses is OK.

      Openly carrying samurai swords is illegal. Unless you have to assemble them from metal shavings, then they’re OK.

  2. Under today’s court ruling, if a police officer failed to flick open a knife on the first try, the knife would not be illegal.

    So if the knife is still completely legal, functions as expected, and isn’t covered by the intent of the law you can still go to jail? Yay?

  3. New Yorkers using s knife as a gravity weapon when cartoons teach us that a simple rock does the job. Or a piano or safe pushed out a 2nd story or above weapon.

    1. How long until the liberals try to sue Acme?

  4. As if a mugger doesn’t have time to open a knife with two hands?

    1. Why’s everybody always gotta be presumed guilty? As if it matters how many or few hands it takes to open a knife if it’s in your pocket? /halfsarc

  5. Everyone on Wall St. knows to never try to catch a falling knife.

    1. apparently not everyone.

  6. Many pocket knives can be opened with a flick of the wrist by the simple expedient of grasping the knife by the blade rather than the handle. The blade isn’t heavy enough nor the action slick enough to be able to flick the blade out of the handle, but you can flick the heavier handle off of the blade even if it has a fairly stiff action. Are the NYC cops wily enough to have figured this out?

    1. Yes. That was exactly the tactic used to determine that a knife “qualified” as a gravity knife. This despite the fact that it takes more than a little practice and considerable wrist strength.

      1. They will also open the knife partially, then flick it the rest of the way

        1. Sure, because you can’t get a good grip on the blade unless it’s partly open. Nevermind that this reverses the entire intent of the law – if you have to first use both hands to partially open it, it cannot be opened with one hand, and opening it this way, then shifting your grip from the blade to the hand takes more time to put the knife into use than just opening it conventionally.

          Not to mention that the intent of the law is backwards, too. A mugger doesn’t need to open a knife in a hurry; it’s his victim that has a short time to get a weapon into action. And it’s people who use a knife as a tool who might need to open it one-handed. If the “rational basis” test required ANY rationality, it wouldn’t pass – but as it’s an infringement on the 2nd Amendment, the test should be strict scrutiny.

  7. As Crotty’s ruling notes, a gravity knife, unlike many other weapons, is defined not by its design but by its function, as determined by the “wrist flick test.”

    Or by the “middle finger flick test”.

  8. Under today’s court ruling, if a police officer failed to flick open a knife on the first try, the knife would not be illegal.

    So we’re going to see lots of cases where either the cops or the defendant will be lying about how many tries it took

    1. “That wasn’t a TRY-try!”

    2. So we’re going to see lots of cases where either the cops or the defendant will be lying about how many tries it took

      This occurred to me as I have a couple of spring-assisted knives that have a safety lock on them. Everybody who uses them for the first time cranks on the thumb stud like a goof before figuring out the lock (I try to say something, nobody waits/listens). So, when officers crank down on the blade without hitting the lock or release first does that count or do they get a mulligan?

    3. The officer must testify, so require him to show the one-flick opening in court. If he can’t get it on the first try, without cheating such as pulling the blade partway out before flicking it, take all costs incurred by the defendant out of his salary – and possibly his retirement account if the costs (including the defendant losing his job) piled up higher than can be collected from his salary.

  9. In Ohio, you can carry a pocket knife as long as it’s not a weapon. Yes, it’s that vague.

    1. If you have a CHL to carry concealed though you’re ok.

      1. My Ohio CHL mentions nothing about blades.

        1. My county-issued GA license says “firearms” but the state calls it a weapons license and has preempted all local blade laws.

    2. In Illinois a knife with a blade length over 3 inches is a Category II weapon. Which means you can carry it, but if you use it in the commission of a crime, it’s a more serious crime. Which is oddly reasonable for Illinois.

      And Illinois changed recently changed the law, so switchblades are legal with an FOID.

  10. Pretty much any knife can be flicked open if you know what you are doing.
    Just shows how these laws claiming good intentions get used to harass and prosecute ordinary citizens.

  11. You know what’s legal l to open carry here in Texas? A sword. Now that’s freedom.

  12. The right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

    Arms includes knives, swords, spears, pikes, firearms and other implements of military usefulness. Gentlemen should be able to walk down the streets of New York wearing a sword.

    1. You wouldn’t be an employee of Cold Steel would you? https://www.coldsteel.com/products/swords.html

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