A New York appeals court heard oral arguments on January 14 in a challenge to a controversial knife law that has landed tens of thousands of suspects in jail over the past ten years.
New York's "gravity knife" law was first passed in the 1950s to combat a type of knife — often quite large and resembling a switchblade — that was popular with youth gangs. In more recent years, however, law enforcement officials in New York City have been applying the statute to common pocketknives. It's a shift in interpretation that is unique to the five boroughs and has led to the prosecution of as many as 60,000 people, many of whom carry knives for their jobs.
The Village Voice conducted a lengthy investigation into the enforcement of the gravity knife law in October.
An advocacy group called Knife Rights has been challenging the law in federal court since 2012, arguing that it is so vague as to be unconstitutional under the equal-protection clause.
Under state law, any knife that opens with the "force of gravity" or "centrifugal force" can be considered a gravity knife. In practical terms, that means any knife that can be opened with a "flick of the wrist" can be, and often is, prosecuted as a gravity knife. Thanks to changes in knife technology, the definition can apply to virtually any pocketknife on the market today.
Knife Rights argues that the "flick" is so dependent on the skill of the "flicker" that it's impossible to tell which knives are illegal and which are not; a knife that may open for a practiced flicker may be impossible to open by someone less experienced, and might never have been designed to open that way to begin with. Defense attorneys echo the sentiment, saying police officers have become adept at flicking knives that even their owners wouldn't be able to open that way.