By David Brand
The stroke of a pen Thursday decriminalized the possession of a knife, and signaled the likely end of a specific weapons-possession charge that disproportionately affects low-income people of color.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law that amends the state penal code to lift the prohibition on gravity knives in New York, after twice vetoing earlier versions of the bill. A gravity knife is defined as any knife where the blade folds and locks into the handle, and can be opened with the use of one hand. An appeals court ruled that the definition was too vague earlier this year.
“As I review this bill for a third time, the legal landscape has changed,” Cuomo said at the bill signing. “In March of this year, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York declared the State's existing ‘gravity knife’ ban unconstitutional. As argued by many who have advocated for this change in law, the court reasoned that the existing law could result in arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.”
People of color have been disproportionately charged with possession of a gravity knife, though the knives are common work tools used by laborers, chefs and carpenters. The classification can also include pocket knives. The ban was initially implemented in the 1950s by lawmakers concerned with switchblade-wielding street gangs.
Cuomo did not address inequities in the enforcement of the law, instead focusing on constitutional concerns.
“While I remain aware of the cautious community voices, I cannot veto a bill passed by the Legislature to address a decided constitutional infirmity in existing law, as recently affirmed by a federal court,” Cuomo said. “I remain confident that our law enforcement community will continue to keep our communities safe by pursuing anyone who uses, or attempts to use, one of these knives in an unlawful manner.”
Assemblymember Dan Quart, the bill’s sponsor and longtime champion, said the new law will enable workers to perform their jobs without fear of arrest.
"After seven years, we have finally managed to overhaul New York’s outdated and discriminatory pocket knife ban,” Quart said. “No stage hand, no plumber and no carpenter should have to risk their freedom to carry a tool they need for work. They will no longer have to.”
Tina Luongo, the attorney-in-charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society, praised Cuomo’s decision to sign the bill.
“Governor Cuomo’s signature brings an end one of the most discriminatory policing practices in our state, an invidious practice where tens of thousands of Black and Latinx New Yorkers were arrested for merely possessing tools that sell at retailers throughout the city,” Luongo said. “For far too long, the NYPD exploited the gravity knife ban to drive up arrest numbers at the expense of our clients, all of whom were innocent of any wrongdoing. We are grateful that the Legislature unanimously repealed the ban and we cheer Governor Cuomo for signing the repeal into law.”
City and state leaders, including Attorney General Letitia James and City Comptroller Scott Stringer, said they supported the legislation. Mayor Bill de Blasio, however, did not support the decriminalization of gravity knives.
"Gravity knives play no role in making our city safer,” de Blasio spokesperson Raul Contreras told the Eagle. “We’re sympathetic to people who use these knives for work, but they present a clear danger in our city and we must find an alternative. We do not support this legislation.”