“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.