So-Called Gravity Knives: New York Law Balances On A Thin Edge

By Danielle Haley*

In late October, Governor Cuomo vetoed a bill that “Relates to the definition of a gravity knife.” The law aimed to reform New York­’s laws regarding gravity knives by reducing the possibility for discretionary and discriminatory enforcement. The law governing gravity knives was initially passed in 1958 and has not been updated since. This marks the second year that a bill to modify this law has passed both houses of the New York State legislature and been rejected by the Governor.

The 1958 law originally criminalized the possession of a knife “which has a blade which is released from the handle or sheath thereof by the force of gravity or the application of centrifugal force which, when released, is locked in place by means of a button, spring, lever or other device.” In part because of New York case law, this has been interpreted to refer any knife that opens with “a flick of the wrist”, even if it does not do so easily or consistently, regardless of whether the defendant has actual knowledge that the knife is a so-called gravity knife. This interpretation means that almost any common folding pocket knife can be manipulated into being a “gravity knife” by an officer who is strong and determined enough. In fact, that is the exact situation of United States v. Irizarry, 509 F. Supp. 2d 198, wherein an officer managed to get a knife to open, in court, after three tries, by flicking his wrist. The fact that the defendant claimed not to open the knife that way, and that the knife was not even designed to open that way according to the manufacturer, was irrelevant to the court’s determination that it fell within the purview of the 1958 statute.

The bill that was passed by both houses of the New York State Legislature in this past year worked to get rid of the “flick of the wrist” test. It would have modified the text to say that a gravity knife was one “released from the handle or sheath thereof SOLELY by the force of gravity which, when released, is locked in place by means of a button, spring, lever or other device.” This would have prevented officers from swinging the knife in order to open it, and curtailed the number of common folding knives that could be classified as gravity knives.

Part of the push to modernize and limit this law has been its discriminatory enforcement. The Legal Aid Society and Brooklyn Defenders reported that “tens of thousands” of people are arrested each year on gravity knife charges. Of those arrests, particularly through stop and frisk procedures, 86 percent involved black or Hispanic suspects. Many of them are tradespeople, particularly those who work in construction or maintenance jobs. The knives are handy for any sort of work in which you need constant access to a cutting tool, and are popularly available at places such as Home Depot, Paragon, and Eastern Mountain Sports. Though the knives offered are simply standard folding knives, the “flick of the wrist” test means that almost any folding knife can be turned into a gravity knife by a well-worn hinge and a determined police officer.

According to the data reported by the Legal Aid Society, this makes possessing a “gravity knife” one of the 10 most prosecuted offenses in New York City. New York City is one of the few places that actually prosecutes gravity knife cases, with the Bronx seeing ten times the number of cases as Suffolk County, a county with a relatively equal population. Modifying the gravity knife law would reign in a system of discriminatory enforcement and stop individuals from being punished for carrying a tool used in the rest of New York State without incident. Though this measure was again rejected by the Governor, continued political pressure and common sense regulation will hopefully lead to the initiative being reintroduced, with success coming close behind.

*Danielle Haley is a 2L at Harvard Law School

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