New York Police Rack Up Arrests by Cracking Down on Possession of Gravity Knives

Sunday, September 27, 2015
Classic gravity knife (graphic: Jerryk50, Wikipedia)

In New York City, you can go to prison with a flick of a police officer’s wrist.


A 1954 state law banning so-called gravity knives, a cousin of the switchblade, has been twisted by New York City police to include almost any kind of foldable knife that can be opened with the flick of the wrist. Even some old and worn down pocket knives fit that description when in the hands of a cop who is skilled at flicking open knives and is looking to make an arrest. That broad interpretation has landed about 60,000 people—the vast majority black and Latino—in court since 2003.


The city has even gone after retailers such as Home Depot, which sell utility knives commonly used by handymen. The home improvement giant was forced to hand over more than 1,300 knives it had in stock in its New York City stores and forfeit the proceeds of four years of knife sales, according to The Village Voice.


Some are now fighting back. Knife Rights, an owners’ group similar to the National Rifle Association, and Native Leather, a retailer, and two defendants in knife cases have sued (pdf) the city, claiming the way it applies the knife law is unconstitutionally vague.  “Specifically, defendants have applied the law to any folding knife—even ones ‘designed to resist opening from the closed position’—if it would be possible for some person to open the knife by means of a wrist‐flicking motion. Plaintiffs argue that a person in possession of a common folding knife, particularly one that the person himself is unable to open with a wrist flick, cannot be expected to know that his possession is criminal because some as‐yet‐unidentified person may be able to flick open the knife,” according to the suit.


“There’s simply no way for an honest citizen to know how to comply with the law the way the city is enforcing it,” Knife Rights president Doug Ritter told the Voice. “That is the very essence of ‘vagueness,’ and that precedent is very well established in law.”


The state judiciary is on record as saying the law is wrongly applied on a regular basis, and Democrats in the state Congress have spent years trying to change the law.


A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that Knife Rights has no standing to sue, but the case will now be sent back to a lower court for the retailer and two other plaintiffs to proceed with their suit.

-Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Constitutional Challenge to Controversial NYC Knife Law Moves Ahead (by Jon Campbell, Village Voice)

NYC Knife Law Challenge Is Revived by U.S. Appeals Court (by Jonathan Stempel, Reuters)

Knife Rights, et al, v. Cyrus Vance, Jr. (pdf)

How A ’50s-Era New York Knife Law Has Landed Thousands in Jail (by Jon Campbell, Village Voice)


GiFF 8 years ago
Someone in NY needs to sue NY knife law on grounds of discrimination against the handicap. Those of us with disabilities and only one working hand are not allowed to own a knife that is operational. Under NY law, I have to slowly wear down my teeth to open a knife if only one appendage is operational.

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