After 7-year push, ‘gravity knives’ are decriminalized

‘Legal landscape has changed’

May 30, 2019 Mary Frost
After seven years of efforts by legislators and legal advocates, Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Thursday signed a bill decriminalizing so-called “gravity knives” in New York. Eagle photo by Mary Frost
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After seven years and two previous vetoes, Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Thursday signed a bill decriminalizing so-called “gravity knives” in New York.

The bill, unanimously passed three times by the state Legislature, legalizes the possession of folding knives of the type sold in hardware stores across the city. The vast majority of people arrested for carrying the common knives have been black and Latino men, many who use the tools in their work.

The bill was sponsored by Assemblymember Dan Quart, of Manhattan, and state Sen. Diane Savino, who represents parts of Bay Ridge and Coney Island.

Quart was ecstatic on Thursday.

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“The third time really is the charm,” he said in a statement. “After seven years, we have finally managed to overhaul New York’s outdated and discriminatory pocket knife ban. No stage hand, no plumber, and no carpenter should have to risk their freedom to carry a tool they need for work.”

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

Cuomo: Things have changed

Cuomo explained his change of heart by saying the ‘legal landscape has changed.’

He was “constrained to veto similar bills” in 2016 and 2017, Cuomo said, because of the “uniform opposition of the state’s law enforcement entities and mayors.” This included Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner James O’Neill, who were dealing with an uptick in slashings and stabbings in 2016, especially around clubs and bars on weekends.

In March, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York declared the state’s existing “gravity knife” ban unconstitutional. The court reasoned that the existing law could result in arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.

That decision forced his hand, Cuomo said.

“I cannot veto a bill passed by the Legislature to address a decided constitutional infirmity in existing law, as recently affirmed by a federal court,” he said.

The bill also recently garnered the support of state Attorney General Letitia James and Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez.

Legal Aid Society applauds governor’s action

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

Redmond Haskins, a Legal Aid spokesman, told the Brooklyn Eagle in March that some unsuspecting knife owners were arrested at coffee shops across the street from their construction sites. Others were 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.

“They use these knives as work tools,” Haskins said. “They get letters from their employers saying they need the knives on the job.”

On Thursday, Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at Legal Aid, said, “Governor Cuomo’s signature brings an end one of the most discriminatory policing practices in our state, an invidious practice where tens of thousands of black and Latinx New Yorkers were arrested for merely possessing tools that sell at retailers throughout the city.”

She claimed that NYPD had “exploited the gravity knife ban to drive up arrest numbers at the expense of our clients, all of whom were innocent of any wrongdoing.”

Almost every folding knife classified as a gravity knife

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

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

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, patrolling Bedford-Stuyvesant, and the Bronx’s 49th Precinct have the highest rate of these arrests.

At a rally last week, Lisa Schreibersdorf, executive director of Brooklyn Defender Services, said most of those arrested “are Black and/or Latinx, and nearly all are laborers, including stagehands, carpenters and movers in uniform.”

On Thursday, Quart thanked the governor “for showing courage and taking a firm stand on the side of working people.”

It is still illegal to carry knife with a blade four inches or longer in public in New York City, and all knives must remain concealed, including their pocket clips.

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  1. A. Nonnie Mouse

    It’s about time this stupid law was repealed. it’s sole purpose has been to give the cops higher arrest stats and the DA higher conviction stats. Next, repeal the law as to assisted openers.