SDNY Judge Rules "Gravity Knife" Law Unconstitutional

“People should be able to tell whether their conduct is lawful or unlawful,” wrote Southern District Judge Paul A. Crotty in a March 27th decision declaring unconstitutional New York’s statute criminalizing so-called “gravity knives.” 

The statute labels a gravity knife a “per se weapon,” equivalent to a switchblade or “metal knuckle knife,” possession of which is a crime under the Penal Law.  A gravity knife is defined as a knife whose blade “is released from the handle or sheath thereof by the force of gravity or the application of centrifugal force” and locks into place.

One problem with the law is that this definition would encompass any folding knife whose blade can be flicked out of its handle by force. In many instances, a knife that most people would consider a “normal” folding knife can be deemed an illegal weapon in the hands of a police officer with the strength, skill, and/or determination needed to see that the blade is capable of being flicked out.  Even more problematic, sometimes a folding knife can be turned into a “gravity knife” by loosening its “pivot” or tensioning screw – either through repeated attempts to coax the blade out with centrifugal force, or by intentionally adjusting the screw to achieve the desired result.

The undercurrent running beneath the surface of this issue is that the gravity knife law historically has been disproportionately applied to people of color and the poor.  

Judge Crotty reasoned that the plaintiff, Joseph Cracco, a sous chef who carried a folding knife for work, was not put on notice of whether his conduct was illegal, given the amorphous and “functional” test of what constitutes a gravity knife:

Under the gravity knife statute and the procedures used to enforce it, there is indeterminacy regarding what a gravity knife actually is. Is it a folding knife that opens and locks into place on the first try? The second? Any number of tries? The gravity knife statute and the wrist flick test do not allow Cracco to discern whether his intended conduct will be criminally prohibited.

As a result, “The gravity knife statute presents a high risk of arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement in the context of Cracco’s challenge,” Judge Crotty wrote.

Plainclothes Cops Are a Problem

By Joel Wertheimer

My friend from law school Scott Hechinger published a tweet thread today detailing an assault by a group of plainclothes officers on a restaurant worker. 

Of the many outrageous things that happen in this thread, I am struck by the presence of the plainclothes officers. The young man who was assaulted had initially thought the officers were stealing his bike, as they were not uniformed, and were looking at his bike (what justification they had for looking at the bike is unclear as well). The officers then assaulted him and charged him with resisting arrest. This happens constantly, and indeed, frequently leads to officers being shot and killed because they are identified as civilian attackers rather than police officers.

In our work, we’ve noticed that a disproportionate number of our excessive force civil suits seem to come from plainclothes officers. It turns out, we are not alone. According to The Intercept, plainclothes officers make up just six percent of the officers on the streets of New York City, but over thirty percent of fatal shootings and 49% of firearms discharges. 

Plainclothes officers also make up over half of unlawful searches in Brooklyn, bursting into people’s homes without identification and lead, according to a City report, citizens to feel scared, as though they’re being robbed:

CCRB report on plainclothes officers

The justification for plainclothes officers is typically that they can blend in and spot crime before it happens. The evidence on that utility, particularly when at least uniformed police officers provide some deterrent threat, seems entirely lacking. Police already have too many interactions with citizens and those interactions already have too large a chance of leading to police violence. 

Needlessly increasing the tension of the situation for minimal benefit is destined to lead to more violence. Police reformers and police commissioners, for the good of civilians and their own officers, should greatly increase the regulations on the use of plainclothes officers.