New York Ban on Gravity Blades Is Void for Vagueness

MANHATTAN (CN) – It didn’t pass the flick test. Siding with a sous chef who was convicted for possessing an illegal gravity knife, a federal judge struck down New York’s ban against the so-called “successor of the switchblade” on Wednesday as unconstitutionally vague.

Whether to open boxes and bottles or to work on his motorcycle, Joseph Cracco said he had used a knife both in his personal life and professionally for years. At the Grand Central train station on Oct. 18, 2018, Cracco was commuting home to Connecticut one afternoon when a police officer stopped him to get a better look at the knife he saw clipped to Cracco’s pants pocket.

It took the officer four or five tries, but he managed to lock the blade into place with a flick of the wrist.

The New York law on gravity knives has since 1958 banned any blade that can be opened to a locked position with a flick of the wrist, and Cracco had to pay a $120 fine after pleading guilty to criminal possession. In a constitutional challenge to the statute one year later, however, Cracco said: “Obviously, a knife that will open only after an indefinite number of repeated attempts cannot reasonably be said to be capable of being readily opened by gravity or centrifugal force.”

Siding with Cracco at summary judgment, U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty found it unconstitutional Wednesday to enforce the wrist-flick test with an specified amount of attempts.

“Under this enforcement regime, Cracco has no way of knowing that his past conduct was, or that his intended future conduct will be criminal under the gravity knife statute,” Crotty wrote.

Crotty noted earlier in the 22-page opinion that the problem with the wrist-flick test is that the functionality of it makes it “difficult if not impossible for a person who wishes to possess a folding knife to determine whether or not the knife is illegal.”

A number of factors can make it easier or harder to lock the blade into place, including a loose screw or residue that might accumulate from repeated use. 

Crotty also described a hypothetical where “a police officer is more adept than an ordinary customer at conducting the wrist flick test.”

In that scenario, “the knife could be illegal at the time of purchase without the customer realizing,” Crotty wrote. 

On the other hand, “one police officer who is less adept at the wrist flick test could test out the knife at the time of purchase and fail to flick it open, leading the customer to believe that is legal, even though a second police officer who is more adept at the wrist flick test might succeed at getting it to lock into place the very next day, and could arrest the customer for illegal possession.”

Crotty also pointed to statutory intent.

“The gravity knife’s statute’s purpose – to prohibit the possession of dangerous weapons used to perpetrate crimes – supports the conclusion that the statute is vague,” Crotty wrote. “The statute was not intended to criminalize the possession of the type of ordinary folding knife that Cracco possessed, which are commonly used by cooks, craftsmen, and laborers to perform their job functions; it was intended to criminalize knives used by criminals in New York City.”

Danny Frost, a spokesman for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, said Thursday that their office is reviewing the decision.

Judge Crotty’s ruling comes a year after the Second Circuit upheld the state’s ban against a similar challenge.

Civil rights advocates have long criticized New York’ s gravity knife statute as a biased law with wide racial disparities in arrest rates.

The Legal Aid Society estimated that 3,500 New Yorkers were arrested for gravity-knife possession in 2018. Of this group, 85 percent were black or Hispanic and 96 percent were men.

The New York Police Department’s 49th Precinct in the Bronx and the 79th Precinct in Bedstuy section of Brooklyn have the highest rates of gravity knife arrests, according the Legal Aid Society’s findings.   

In the summer of 2018, investigators with the Legal Aid Society went to hardware stores in Manhattan and identified 130 stores that sell folding knives that would qualify as gravity knives under the wrist-flick test. 

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