November 26th, 2018
By Melissa Gira Grant
For skilled trades workers in New York, just showing up to a job with the gear you need to stay safe could get you arrested.
John (not his real name) is a technician, working on cell phone towers in the city. He has to carry a knife, he said, “because we deal with ropes and we deal with climbing, and worse case scenario … sometimes we got to cut ourselves down.” One morning in April, John stopped at a store for a snack in Washington Heights, his partner still in their truck, when an NYPD officer approached him and said he was responding to a police call in the area. Then, he said, the officer asked to search him, and said, “What’s that on your pocket?” It was the clip of his work knife.
The officer arrested John, who was sent to the Manhattan Detention Complex, also known as the Tombs, while he waited to see a judge. He was charged with “criminal possession of a weapon” for what the city deemed a “gravity knife,” a knife that flicks open. He described it as a box cutter.
The Manhattan district attorney’s office prosecuted John, who eventually pleaded to a violation; he was fined $120, and he missed two days of work while jailed and in court. “I didn’t commit no crime,” John told The Appeal. “I felt like violated … and for what? What was the point?”
That question has a long history in New York City, where law enforcement says it needs to keep illegal knives off the streets, but many people use knives for work. After an uproar over unfair “gravity knife” prosecutions, District Attorney Cyrus Vance argued in favor of keeping the law banning them on the books while also claiming his office did not prosecute people who use them on the job.
Yet, attorneys with the Legal Aid Society contend that prosecutors working under Vance have continued to prosecute New Yorkers for gravity knives that they use as part of their trade. In John’s case, his attorney said, his employer wrote a letter stating that he needed the knife for work, but a prosecutor argued that he wasn’t actually at work when he was apprehended. The charge against John was upgraded to a felony because he had a misdemeanor conviction for assault when he was 20 years old. (The DA’s office confirmed that there was a case involving John, but said that since it was sealed, the office could not add anything more.)
“As long as I’ve been in the office since 2005, I’ve seen these cases,” Hara Robrish, an attorney at Legal Aid, told The Appeal. Legal Aid estimates that it will see 800 gravity knife cases this year alone and says Vance’s office remains aggressive in prosecuting them. Despite public outcry, she said, “we’ve never seen a change in the way they’ve been prosecuting these charges.”
What counts as a gravity knife?
The term “gravity knife” can sound nefarious, but a knife’s ability to “flick” depends on who is using it. In some cases, according to Legal Aid, officers have to try multiple times to flick a knife open. What the NYPD considers a gravity knife today can be purchased all over the city, and people may not even know it’s a crime to carry one.
In 2016, lawmakers in Albany sought to update the state’s gravity knife law to decriminalize the kinds of knives used by skilled trade workers. The law easily passed both houses, but was vetoed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, who cited opposition to the bill from law enforcement.
Vance’s office opposed the bill, but told The Appeal it supports amending the existing law to address employment-related use. In a May 2016 memo, the office said it never intended to prosecute workers. “It is not the policy of the New York City Police Department to arrest on the job workers in possession of business tools for gravity knife possession, nor is it the policy of the New York City District Attorney’s Offices to prosecute such individuals for criminal possession of a weapon,” the office wrote. “[I]n the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, even when such individuals are arrested, if it appears to the District Attorney’s Office that an individual was at the time using the knife at issue for a bona fide employment purpose, the case will be quickly dismissed.”
But Robrish says that wasn’t the case in 2016, and since then, not much has changed. In June, the organization reports, NYPD officers arrested a building superintendent, still in his work uniform with “superintendent” stitched on the pocket, while waiting for the subway in Union Square. According to court documents, he was charged with possession of a weapon in the fourth degree for allegedly carrying a pocket knife. His attorney pushed for a dismissal, given that he was in his work uniform and traveling during business hours, but according to Legal Aid, the assistant district attorney wanted him to plead guilty. In this case, however, the judge sided with the superintendent, and dismissed the charges.
Because gravity knife possession is charged under the broader weapon possession law, it is hard to track how many people are arrested and prosecuted for gravity knives without reviewing each case to identify the weapon described.
In Legal Aid’s review of gravity knife prosecutions between July 1 and Dec. 31, 2015, the organization found that Vance’s office prosecuted 254 Legal Aid clients for possession of a gravity knives. Legal Aid also found that of prosecutors in all five boroughs, Vance’s office was most likely to pursue an upgrade in charges in gravity knife cases: 65 cases were upgraded to felonies in Manhattan compared with five each in Queens and Brooklyn, four in the Bronx, and none in Staten Island. And based on their analysis of all these cases, 84 percent of people arrested for gravity knives were either Black or Latinx.
The DA’s office said that because the cases in this story are sealed, it could not comment on them directly. Danny Frost, director of communications for the office, wrote in an email that when a person is carrying an illegal knife for work, prosecutors will generally offer an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal (ACD) or allow the person to plead to a disorderly conduct violation.
When asked about the difference between that policy and the 2016 pledge to dismiss the cases, Frost said the wording of the 2016 memo was imperfect. “Yes, ‘quickly resolved’ would have been a more precise way to put it than ‘quickly dismissed,’” he wrote.
Legal Aid says that while the DA’s office may consider these de facto dismissals, in practice they aren’t: A disorderly conduct plea can result in fines and community service, which could mean loss of work. And an ACD remains an open case until it is actually dismissed.
Consequences that linger
Tim, a freelance cinematographer who asked to be identified only by first name because of his immigration status, knows the danger of such prosecutions firsthand. Tim told The Appeal he uses a knife at work to cut gels for lights and to open packages. After an arrest in 2013 for carrying a knife, he purchased a new knife that cannot open on its own, specifically to comply with the New York state law.
But in April 2016, as politicians debated the gravity knife law, Tim was on his way to work, passing through the subway station at Union Square, when an NYPD officer asked to search him and then arrested him. From the holding area, Tim said, “I watched him and four [or] five other officers attempt to get the knife to open in the way they claim these knives will open to qualify as gravity knives.”
Tim’s employer wrote a letter to the district attorney stating the knife’s work purpose. The company that manufactured the knife wrote a letter, too, but the office still wouldn’t dismiss the case. “I was told it was easiest to just take the ACD and it would go away, and it wouldn’t be a problem.”
But even with the ACD, Tim’s case remained open for six months, and during that time, Tim said, he was stopped at the U.S. border returning from Canada. Tim is Canadian, in the U.S. on a green card, and his open case meant he was likely to be stopped. But a conviction would have been worse. According to his attorney, Casey Dalporto, the misdemeanor conviction for gravity knife possession could have resulted in him being deported and banned from the U.S.
Dalporto said she tried to use Vance’s stated policy with his prosecutors to get them to dismiss Tim’s case—to no avail. “It seemed to fall squarely within the parameters of the ‘prosecutorial discretion’ that they had outlined,” Dalporto said. Instead, she said, she was left “to plead with the prosecutor to honor their own words.”