Second Circuit Upholds New York Ban on Gravity Knives

(CN) – Challengers to New York’s statewide ban on gravity knives have not proven the law to be unconstitutional, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.

John Copeland, Pedro Perez and Native Leather Ltd. challenged the ban in a lawsuit against New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood and New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.

They claimed that the ban is unconstitutionally vague as it applies to common folding knives. New York’s law, which dates back to 1958, defines gravity knives as those than can be opened to a locked position with a flick of the wrist.

The challengers stated that the wrist test was so vague that ordinary people would not be able to determine which knives are legal.

Copeland, an artist, was arrested under the law in 2010 after one of the officers used the wrist test on his knife. Copeland said that two police officers had previously told him that the knife was legal.

Perez, an art dealer, had to perform seven days of community service after police used the wrist test on his knife.

Native Leather sells folding knives, and it had to turn over to police any knives that passed the wrist test one out of 10 times.

Knife Rights Inc. and the Knife Rights Foundation joined the lawsuit against the county and state officials, but the district court dismissed them for lack of standing.

The federal court for the Southern District of New York rejected the challenge, and the 2nd Circuit affirmed the decision in an opinion written by Chief Judge Robert A. Katzman.

“Because the challengers did not show that the statute was unconstitutionally enforced against the retailer in a prior proceeding, we reject their vagueness claim,” he wrote.

In order to prevail, Katzman stated, all three plaintiffs would have to prove that the law was applied to them unconstitutionally.

He also deferred to the state courts on the plaintiffs’ argument that the wrist test is unreliable to differences among the people testing the knives.

“No state court has held that, for example, a knife is a gravity knife only if a person of average skill or practice can open it,” Katzman wrote.

While Copeland and Perez overcame this burden of proof, Native Leather did not, the judge stated.

“In responding to the subpoena, Native Leather produced more than 300 knives that (Native Leather owner Carol) Walsh simply guessed might be banned by the statute,” he wrote. “Native Leather’s lack of diligence significantly limits its ability to show that the statute provided insufficient notice that it sold banned knives, because it prevents it from offering evidence that the knives had responded differently to the wrist‐flick test prior to the D.A.’s tests.”

“Native Leather offered no evidence that any of its seized knives responded inconsistently to the wrist‐flick test, much less that all of them did, as the demanding standard for facial challenges requires,” Katzman added. [emphasis original]

Despite this ruling, Katzman called on the legislative and executive branches to take another look at the gravity knife law.

“The statute’s reliance on a functional test and imposition of strict liability on what can be a common, if dangerous, household tool might in some instances trap the innocent by not providing fair warning,” he stated.

“The sheer number of people who carry folding knives that might or might not respond to the wrist‐flick test raises concern about selective enforcement,” Katzman added.

Attorney Daniel Schmutter of the Ridgewood, N.J. law firm of Hartman & Winnicki represented the plaintiffs. He said in a statement, “We’re naturally disappointed with the panel’s decision.  We will be seeking rehearing by the full court.”

Vance’s office did not respond to an email request for comment on Friday.

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