On May 30, 2019, Governor Cuomo signed into law a bill removing criminal sanctions for the possession of gravity knives. This bill brings the state’s laws into line with a recent federal court decision, which found that New York’s legislative scheme was too vague and therefore unconstitutional.
Through this bill, the state legislature has removed the term “gravity knife” from certain Penal Law provisions, thereby making their mere possession legal. In addition, such knives will also no longer be considered to be “deadly weapons” under the law.
What is a Gravity Knife?
New York law defines a “gravity knife” as a knife where the blade can be opened because of gravity or a flick of the wrist. They were banned in New York in 1950s due to a series of knife crimes. In contrast, switchblades and other types of knives require the push of a button to open the blade automatically.
Penal Law § 265.00(5) – ‘Gravity knife’ means any knife which has a blade which is released from the handle or sheath thereof by the force of gravity or the application of centrifugal force which, when released, is locked in place by means of a button, spring, lever or other device.
Some prosecutors and police would employ the “wrist flick test.” If the knife opened with a flick of the wrist, it was a gravity knife for purposes of prosecution. However, there were several issues in implementing the “wrist flick test.” One issue is that the screw on a utility knife may loosen over time, making it capable later on of flicking into an open and locked position. Or, certain persons may be more adept than others in opening the knife with a wrist flick.
Targeted Prosecutions for Possession
Prior to this development, citizens whose jobs required them to carry utility knives were sometimes arrested. This included construction workers, stagehands, and electricians. Police officers perceived their knives to be gravity knives. In other words, it disproportionately impacted workers who needed to carry folding knives for their jobs.
Because the knife was defined by its function rather than its design, the District Court for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) found that New York’s existing law could result in arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. According to one lawyer with the New York City Legal Aid Society, the uncertainty of the definition of such a knife is “one of the most discriminatory policing practices in our state.” In just the last year alone, there were 3,500 gravity knife related arrests. Of those arrested, 85% were minorities.
However, the NYPD and many prosecutors believe that lifting the ban on such knives would be dangerous to the community. The knives can be quickly deployed and can be used to inflict serious and deadly injuries. NYPD officials noted there have been 1,600 slashings and stabbings in New York so far this year.
- New York State Governor, “Governor Cuomo Signs Legislation Ending The Legal Ban On Gravity Knives” (June 3, 2019). Available at: governor.ny.gov/news/governor-cuomo-signs-legislation-ending-legal-ban-gravity-knives (last accessed June 12, 2019).
- Chad Arnold, “Why New York Just Made Gravity Knives Legal.” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Albany Bureau (June 4, 2019). Available at: democratandchronicle.com/story/news/politics/albany/2019/06/04/gravity-knives-new-york-lifts-its-ban/1338039001/ (last accessed June 12, 2019).
- Jesse Mckinley, “The ‘Gravity Knife’ Led to Thousands of Questionable Arrests. Now It’s Legal,” The New York Times, (May 31, 2019). Available at: nytimes.com/2019/05/31/nyregion/ny-gravity-knife-law.html (last accessed June 12, 2019).
P&P’s 2019 interns Ian Ressler and Jordan Ziffer helped in researching and writing this blog post.