Will Cuomo decriminalize ‘gravity knives’ in New York this time around?

May 24, 2019 Mary Frost
Stagehand Chris Beck(center), a member of Local 1, led a chant on Thursday at a rally to decriminalize “gravity knives” in front of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Manhattan office. He said that stagehands are frequently arrested for possessing common folding knives necessary for work, after leaving their theaters late at night. Right: Assemblymember Dan Quart and Marty Lafalce, Legal Aid Society. Photo by Mary Frost
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A bill to decriminalize so-called “gravity knives” has passed the New York State Senate and Assembly for the third time, and now is headed to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desk.

It faces an uncertain future, however. Under pressure from law enforcement groups, district attorneys and Mayor Bill de Blasio, Cuomo has vetoed similar legislation twice in the past.

“Today, the governor has a chance to end the arbitrary arrests and prosecutions of thousands of working class New Yorkers and New Yorkers of color,” bill sponsor Assemblymember Dan Quart of Manhattan said at a rally in front of Cuomo’s office on Thursday. “For the many individuals arrested for owning nothing more than a simple work tool, he is the only person that stands between freedom and fairness, and a prison sentence.”

State Sen. Diane Savino, who represents parts of Bay Ridge and Coney Island, is sponsoring the bill in the State Senate.

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

Gravity knives, as defined in the 1950s-era law, are no longer manufactured in the U.S. But the language of the current law bans any knife that can be opened with “the force of gravity or the application of centrifugal force,” or by “flicking” the knife open.

Almost any knife, with enough attempts, can eventually be flicked open in this way. This has resulted in the arrest of thousands of otherwise innocent knife owners every year, legal advocates say.

Assemblymember Dan Quart. Eagle photo by Mary Frost
Assemblymember Dan Quart. Eagle photo by Mary Frost

The Legal Aid Society says it represents roughly five gravity knife cases a day, or about 1,800 cases each year.

“For years, the NYPD and city prosecutors have exploited New York’s broadly worded 1958 gravity knife statute to arrest and prosecute thousands of New Yorkers — the overwhelming majority from communities of color — who possess common folding knives that are designed, marketed and sold as work tools, not weapons,” Tina Luongo, who heads the criminal defense practice at The Legal Aid Society, told reporters on Thursday.

In the 10-year period between 2003 and 2013, roughly 60,000 people were arrested for carrying a common folding knife. Brooklyn’s 79th Precinct (Bedford-Stuyvesant) and the Bronx’s 49th Precinct have the highest rate of these arrests.

Lisa Schreibersdorf, Executive Director of Brooklyn Defender Services, said that tens of thousands of workers have been criminalized for carrying everyday tools required for their jobs.

“Most are Black and/or Latinx, and nearly all are laborers, including stagehands, carpenters and movers in uniform,” she said. “Many lose their jobs because of these arrests and some are forced to spend time in jail or prison. Because of New York’s gravity knife law, immigrants with or without legal status may be indefinitely detained by ICE and deported just for carrying work tools.”

One Parks Department employee was apprehended while working as an arborist for Prospect Park. Some are arrested at coffee shops across the street from their construction sites, according to Legal Aid.

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.

A better chance this year?

Decriminalizing the knives, which can be legally bought in any hardware store, may have more of a chance this year.

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. 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.”

New York State Attorney General Letitia James recently expressed her support for a full repeal of the statute. “It’s high time that gravity knives be removed from the penal code,” she said.

The Brooklyn, Staten Island and Manhattan DAs are also no longer calling for a veto, Luongo said.

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

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