By David Brand
The third time may be the charm for a piece of legislation that would decriminalize gravity knives in New York, and several candidates for Queens district attorney say they’d welcome the measure.
Ending the prohibition on gravity knives — defined as folding blades that can flip open from the handle — would eliminate a charge that disproportionately punishes immigrant workers and low-income people of color, the candidates told the Eagle. Client data compiled by The Legal Aid Society backs up their assertion.
Black and Latinx defendants accounted for about 85 percent of the 885 Legal Aid clients arraigned on gravity knife charges citywide in the first half of 2018, according to an analysis of client data shared with reporters last week (THE CITY was the first to report on the Legal Aid analysis). About nine in 10 people arrested for gravity knife possession were charged with misdemeanors.
“Historically this law has been used far too often to criminalize our poor, working class and immigrant communities,” said former Brooklyn and state Attorney General’s Office prosecutor Jose Nieves, a candidate for DA. “In many instances, individuals are charged with criminal possession of a gravity knife for possessing a normal utility knife used for work purposes.”
Even if the bill doesn’t pass the state legislature, Nieves said he would decline to prosecute gravity knife possession. Councilmember Rory Lancman, Borough President Melinda Katz, former Queens prosecutor Mina Malik and public defender Tiffany Cabán also said they would not prosecute the offense.
Attorney Betty Lugo said she would not “prosecute gravity knife possession alone” and added that the law is unconstitutional because it leads to subjective analysis by police officers. Retired Judge Gregory Lasak did not provide a response as of press time.
Though the term “gravity knife” may evoke images of the Sharks and Jets swiping switchblades at each other in “West Side Story,” the term encompasses a broad class of utilitarian tools, including box cutters and chef’s cutlery. Any knife where the blade folds and locks into the handle can be considered a gravity knife, and it is currently illegal to carry them in New York — even though hardware stores routinely stock the item. Legal Aid’s report identified 130 shops in Manhattan alone that sold the knives.
Though decriminalization bills have failed twice before, the legislation is gaining steam after an Appeals Court judge ruled in March that the “wrist-flick” test used to determine what constitutes a gravity knife was too vague. District attorneys in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island said they would not oppose this iteration of the bill, THE CITY reported Monday.
Acting Queens DA John Ryan said the office has not reviewed “the exact language of the bill” but said that “some change in the law is in order."
All of the DA candidates who responded to the Eagle’s gravity knife questions denounced the current law.
Lancman targeted the gravity knife law during his campaign kickoff in September 2018 and said DAs and police “waste time and money arresting and prosecuting New Yorkers for carrying knives commonly sold in hardware stores.”
“A majority of the people who carry these tools are simply commuting back and forth to their jobs,” Lancman said.
Malik said the charge disproportionately affects working-class people, especially immigrants, and creates an economic disadvantage she would fight as DA.
The misdemeanor charge “does nothing but saddle people with a criminal conviction that affects their ability to get a job, housing, loans — even a license,” she said.
Queens accounted for 143 of the 885 arrests (about 16 percent) that Legal Aid handled in the first six months of 2018. Nine of the people arrested in Queens were charged with a felony.
The 101st Precinct in Far Rockaway was the only Queens precinct to crack the top 15 in citywide gravity knife arrests. The 101st Precinct and 102nd Precinct in Richmond Hill were both in the top 10 for felony gravity knife arrests. Both precincts are located in communities where people of color make up the majority of the population.
Cabán said she has represented “countless” working people who were charged with gravity knife possession who were often penalized because of their prior convictions.
“Though gravity knives are used in many blue-collar jobs, their prosecution disproportionately targets working people of color,” Cabán said, explaining that many of her clients were hit with “felony bump-ups because of their possession of work tools.”
“How does the incarceration of thousands of blue-collar workers serve public safety?” she continued. “The weaponization of the existing law against communities of color must stop, and I urge the governor to sign this important piece of legislation."