By Rosa Goldensohn and Josefa Velasquez
May 20, 2019
City prosecutors’ changing stances and a recent court ruling appear to be shifting the balance toward lifting the state ban on so-called gravity knives.
This year marks Albany lawmakers’ third attempt to repeal the folding knives prohibition, which opponents argue punishes thousands annually for holding blades commonly sold in stores, carried for work and believed by many to be perfectly legal.
Gravity knives are defined by users’ ability to quickly flick open and lock using just one hand — a standard a federal judge recently ruled vague.
The Legal Aid Society, which analyzed gravity knife cases in the city from the first half of 2018, found that 85% of those arrested for possession were black or Latino.
Keshone Jones, an ambulance repairman, spent a full night and day locked up in Brooklyn last month for having a folding knife among other tools in his car while driving home from the gym. He was released and the charges will be dismissed in six months if he avoids trouble with the law.
“Something small like that shouldn’t be a crime,” said Jones, 33. “I use it for work, I don’t use it for nothing else.”
He added, “I missed a day of work, it was horrible.”
Change in the Air In 2016, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. signed a letter urging Gov. Andrew Cuomo to reject a previous version of the repeal bill. So did then-Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson.
Now Vance and Thompson’s successor, Eric Gonzalez, won’t stand in the way of the latest bill, their spokespeople told THE CITY.
Danny Frost, a Vance spokesperson, said in a statement that the district attorney does “continue to believe that gravity knives are dangerous weapons,” but he respects that state lawmakers “feel differently.”
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., March 12, 2019. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., March 12, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY Gonzalez was not involved in discussions about the bill and is not calling for a veto, spokesperson Oren Yaniv wrote in an email.
Staten Island District Attorney Michael McMahon called the legislation “another Albany overreach,” but is not advocating the governor to veto the new measure, either.
“It appears the ship has sailed,” he said in a written statement.
Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark — who also signed the 2016 letter to Cuomo — said in a statement she believed in charging in gravity knife cases only when a person is accused of “intent to use it unlawfully against another.”
“We realize that gravity knives can present a danger, but they are also used for many legitimate purposes in crafts and trades,” she said.
Ikimulisa Livingston, a spokesperson for the Queens District Attorney’s Office — which will have a new boss soon — wrote that officials have not seen the legislation and could not comment on it.
In late March, Manhattan U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty ruled that the 1950s-era state law banning gravity knives was unconstitutionally vague and that the “wrist-flick test” — used by Vance’s office and the NYPD to identify whether a knife would require force to open — presented “a high risk of arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.”
Cuomo, who has twice vetoed legislation that attempted to decriminalize gravity knives, will review the latest bill “in the context of the recent court decision,” a spokesperson said in an email to THE CITY.
‘Defending the Indefensible’ Assemblymember Dan Quart (D-Manhattan), who in February introduced the latest bill to decriminalize gravity knives, said the signs of possible change suggested “all of these organizations are tired of defending the indefensible.”
But, he added: “Maybe it’s too optimistic to suggest that Cy Vance has realized that years of prosecuting poor people for carrying work tools was a mistake.”
Quart’s bill and its counterpart, proposed by State Sen. Diane Savino’s (D-Staten Island), were approved by both chambers of the Legislature this spring. The measures would remove language about gravity knives from the portion of the state penal law that can be used to bring weapon-possession charges.
The previous bills, which Cuomo vetoed, would have changed the definition of a gravity knife in state law. The vetoed proposals would have made it clearer on what types of knives were meant to be banned.
Mayor Bill de Blasio also signed the 2016 letter to Cuomo. Asked for his current position, City Hall spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein said only that officials are “reviewing the legislation.” The NYPD is still advocating a veto, spokesperson Devora Kaye said in a statement.
The Legal Aid Society estimated there were 3,500 gravity knife-related arrests in the city last year – most of which were either resolved with a violation for disorderly conduct instead of criminal charges or dismissed. But the arrest can mean 24 hours in jail, a lost day of work or even being fired, and puts immigrants in danger of deportation.
Meanwhile, gravity knives are readily available in city hardware stores.
To make a point, Savino in February introduced a bill to make sale of the knives illegal. “As individuals are being arrested and criminally charged for carrying gravity knives — even when doing so innocuously — the sale of gravity knives should also be a crime,” she said.