AG James: End ‘arbitrary and capricious’ gravity knife law

New York Attorney General Letitia James said she supports decriminalizing gravity knives. AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

New York Attorney General Letitia James said she supports decriminalizing gravity knives. AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

By David Brand

Add New York Attorney General Letitia James to the growing list of lawmakers and advocates championing legislation that would decriminalize the possession of a gravity knife, an offense that disproportionately impacts low-income and working-class people of color.

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. Police and prosecutors in New York use a “wrist-flick” test to determine what constitutes a gravity knife, but a state judge ruled in March that the definition is too vague.

The state Senate and Assembly each passed a bill to lift the prohibition by amending the penal code earlier this year. James said she agrees with the decriminalization measure and called the gravity knife law “arbitrary and capricious” at a hearing in Albany Tuesday

“I believe it’s high time that gravity knives be removed from the penal code,” James said. The Eagle obtained audio of the hearing.

A Legal Aid Society analysis of client data found that people of color accounted for 88 percent of the organization’s 885 clients arraigned on gravity knife charges citywide in the first half of 2018. THE CITY was the first to report on the Legal Aid analysis.

Though the term may evoke images of switchblades, gravity knives are utilitarian tools often used by construction workers, carpenters, chefs and other laborers.

“For years, the NYPD and city prosecutors have exploited New York's broadly worded 1958 gravity knife statute to arrest and prosecute thousands of New Yorkers — the overwhelming majority from communities of color — who possess common folding knives that are designed, marketed and sold as work tools, not weapons,” said Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of Legal Aid’s Criminal Defense Practice. “The legislature has passed gravity knife reform for a third time near unanimously each year. We urge Gov. Cuomo to intervene and bring an end to this discriminatory law enforcement practice by signing this common sense gravity knife reform bill into law.”

District attorneys in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island said they would not oppose the legislation to decriminalize the knives, THE CITY reported Monday.

Acting Queens DA John Ryan told the Eagle that the office has not reviewed “the exact language of the bill” but said that “some change in the law is in order."

Six of the seven Democratic candidates for Queens DA told the Eagle they favored repealing the gravity knife law because of its impact on people of color, especially immigrants.

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.