New York City’s Gravity Knife Enforcement: Stop and Frisk in Sheep(dog)’s Clothing
Tony Sculimbrene 06.27.18
NOTE: This article is about knives and the law. It is not legal advice. If you need legal advice, consult a local lawyer.
In the 90s and early 00s, New York City was still slowly pulling out of a crime haze that engulfed most of the 80s. It was no longer a city riddled with bullets and graffiti, but it was not quite yet the safe, walkable place that it is today (or as it is shown in TV and movies). One of the theories that animated policing in this era was the Broken Windows theory. Largely shown to be ineffective now, Broken Windows rose out of an article by James Q. Wilson and Richard Kelling. The idea was that if police cracked down on low level offenses like vandalism, that higher level offenses would be unable to flourish and the overall crime rate would be driven down. New York City strongly embraced this idea and crime dropped. Wilson and Kelling however disavowed NYC’s interpretation of the theory, stressing that they were referencing taking care of communities (aka community policing, which is distinctly different and vastly more effective) and not overzealous enforcement of low level offenses.
Out of this backdrop arose a practice that struck against the very heart of the American constitutional promise–random stop, question, and frisk by police. Known in the media as Stop and Frisk, NYC police were spot checking people, randomly stopping them, asking questions, and then pat frisking them for contraband. This, however, was a brazenly unconstitutional policy and it is stunning that it lasted as long as it did. The US Supreme Court has long held that searches without suspicion of criminal activity are wholly unconstitutional (see Terry v. Ohio). Nonetheless, NYC police, at the direction of high ranking city officials (Rudy Guiliani among them) carried out the policy until the courts finally stepped in and told them to stop. In Floyd v. City of New York Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that as implemented, the Stop and Frisk policy was unconstitutional.
That was in 2013.
Since then, the police in NYC have switched tactics with largely the same outcome. Their method of search is based on possessing and carrying a knife. Using a very strict interpretation of New York state’s law that bans gravity knives, NYC police have continued the Stop and Frisk policy, but this time they claim they are targeting people with illegal knives. The Village Voice, Jon Campbell in particular, has done great work on this issue (here is a link to his original piece), along with lawyers working for the Bronx Defenders. The numbers are staggering. In 2011, pre-Floyd, police used Stop and Frisk to stop over 680,000 people in a single year. When Floyd ended Stop and Frisk in 2013, the city continued arresting a huge number of people for violations of the Gravity Knife law (Penal Code 265.01). The switch from Stop and Frisk to gravity knife stops resulted in a lower number of overall stops, but similar numbers of knife prosecutions. Furthermore, even if the overall rate dropped it is still staggeringly high.
This niche law targeting exceptionally rare knives continued, post Floyd, to be one of the five most frequently charged crimes in New York City. For all intents and purposes, the Gravity Knife law enforcement has replaced Stop and Frisk. Thousands of tradesman have been arrested and prosecuted for carrying a knife and a visible pocket clip has become enough reason to stop a person given that random stops were now (and always were) illegal. The Village Voice reported that some theater unions were having their tradesman stopped and arrested so often that they were doing training sessions on carrying knives and interacting with police. Additionally, the law may have been applied in racially problematic ways.
The trick behind this bait and switch whereby Stop and Frisk continues with a new name is the Wrist Flick test. In litigation on the Gravity Knife stops, helmed by KnifeRights (Copeland v. Vance, which, as this article was being written, lost in the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, an en banc hearing is pending), police have described how they determine if a knife is a gravity knife (specifically ignoring the traditional knife world definition of a gravity knife–i.e. an automatic knife without a spring that falls open and locks in place). They are trained in the academy use centrifugal force to move the knife down towards the ground and snap it open at the last moment. Under this test, virtually any folder counts as a gravity knife. If you are knife guy watch this video of the Wrist Flick test and then try it yourself (here, by the way, is an actual gravity knife in action). Your most legal, most mundane folder would qualify as a Gravity Knife.
The effect of the Wrist Flick test is that Stop and Frisk, on a slightly smaller scale, lives on. NYC has the most restrictive knife laws in the US and this is why. There is ongoing litigation challenging the Wrist Flick test and the gravity knife law. There has also been numerous efforts to change the law in the legislature, but all of them have been stymied.
The most interesting thing here is the groups fighting the law–on one hand you have staunch Second Amendment and knife folks, typically conservatives. On the other hand you have civil liberty folks and social justice progressive. Let’s be clear-Knife Rights and the New York Times are allies on this issue. That fact along should tell you something–if, in this most partisan of climates, those two groups can work together to fight a law, that law must be REALLY bad. The numbers bear it out–Stop and Frisk lives on, cloaked in the mask of a 1950s era Gravity Knife law. If you care about personal freedom, the right to carry, or just the simple idea of being left alone as you go through the world, pay attention to this fight both in courts and in the legislature. It could come to a government entity near you. Right now, in California, a similarly strict interpretation of fixed blades is starting to cause problems (lawmakers in California: no, a folder in the open position is not a fixed blade).