Brooklyn Boro

Blade ban could be slashed

April 12, 2019 Mary Frost
A bill to legalize many common folding knives in NYC has passed the state Assembly and will likely pass the Senate, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature is far from certain. Eagle photo by Mary Frost

Gravity-knife legislation would stop disproportionate arrests of black and Hispanic men

For the third year in a row, a bill to decriminalize every-day folding knives in New York City passed in the State Assembly on Wednesday. It now heads to the State Senate, likely in May.

The bill faces a hurdle when it hits the Governor’s Office, however. Facing pressure from law enforcement groups and Mayor Bill de Blasio, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has vetoed similar legislation the last two years.

Most New York City residents aren’t even aware they can be arrested for possessing common pocket knives of the type sold in Wal-Mart and corner hardware stores. These knives are often classified by police as gravity knives, leading to the arrest of their confused owners.

Some unsuspecting knife owners are arrested at coffee shops across the street from their construction sites, a spokesperson for the Legal Aid Society told the Brooklyn Eagle last month. Others are nabbed on their way to work as stage hands, artists or building superintendents. One Parks Department employee was apprehended while working as an arborist for Prospect Park.

The law was originally passed to prohibit a type of knife no longer for sale in city stores, which could be opened using gravity or centrifugal force (such as “flicking” the knife open). Almost any knife, with enough attempts, can eventually be flicked open in this way, however.

This ambiguity is enough to send law-abiding citizens to jail, according to Legal Aid, which represents roughly five gravity knife cases a day, or about 1,800 such cases each year.

Brooklyn’s 79th Precinct (Bedford-Stuyvesant) and the Bronx’s 49th Precinct have the highest rate of these arrests.

Roughly 90 percent of those arrested are black or Latino, according to the bill’s sponsors, State Sen. Diane J. Savino and Assemblymember Dan Quart.

The Assembly’s unanimous vote “speaks to the urgency and importance of immediate reform to New York’s outdated and discriminatory gravity knife statute,” Quart said in a release on Wednesday.

“Every single day this antiquated law remains on the books, it poses an unrelenting threat to the freedom and livelihoods of working class New Yorkers, and specifically New Yorkers of color who remain disproportionately targeted for arrest and prosecution.”

The bill would remove the term “gravity knife” from the penal law listing firearms, switchblades, bludgeons and other dangerous weapons.

In the 10-year period between 2003 and 2013, roughly 60,000 people were arrested for carrying a common folding knife. Many of those arrested use knives in their work, officials said.

In 2015, Bernard Perez, an electrician from Brooklyn, was arrested after an NYPD officer found a folding knife in his car, according to the Daily News.

Perez said the arresting officer could not open the knife with one hand, even though he made multiple efforts. Perez, who uses the knife to strip wire while on the job, was awarded $57,000 after he sued the city.

Adding more fuel to the advocates’ arguments, U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty on March 28 ruled in favor of a Connecticut sous chef, Joseph Cracco, who was arrested and sentenced to two to four years in New York City for carrying his folding work knife. Cracco sued the city and a police officer in 2014.

Justice Crotty said the law was too vague.

“People should be able to tell whether their conduct is lawful or unlawful,” Judge Crotty wrote in his opinion. He added, “There are no limitations on the amount of times an officer can attempt to flick a knife open.”

Danny Frost, a spokesperson for Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr., said the office was “reviewing the decision.”

Knowing that the law “is susceptible to abuse” and leads to discriminatory enforcement is helpful to the legislation, Quart’s spokesperson Aleksandra Wolan told the Eagle on Thursday. “I hope the governor takes the side of people of color and working class New Yorkers.

Wolan said that while the governor may have safety concerns, a folding knife is no more dangerous than a fixed-blade knife.

Quart said the ruling showed that the law’s ambiguity has “left it susceptible to abuse. I urge the State Senate and the governor to … finally end these unnecessary prosecutions.”

Only one state senator voted against the legislation last year — former Sen. Marty Golden of Brooklyn.

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