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State's Ban on Folding Knives Criminalizes Hardworking Tradesmen: Officials

By Shaye Weaver | June 10, 2016 3:03pm | Updated on June 13, 2016 8:42am
 Dan Quart's bill to decriminalize certain knives was passed last week in the Assembly.
Dan Quart's bill to decriminalize certain knives was passed last week in the Assembly.
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DNAinfo/Shaye Weaver

UPPER EAST SIDE — Two years ago, electrician Walt Seager went out to get a cup of coffee and ended up in jail.

Seager had a clip knife in his pocket, used to cut wire and open boxes on the job with the Department of Education, and seeing that, two plainclothes police officers approached him on the street and arrested him for possession of an illegal knife — a gravity knife, which releases a blade with the force of gravity with a spring or mechanism, like a switchblade.

He was given a desk appearance ticket, but the arrest put him off work for two months as he sat at a reassignment center while the case was litigated. It was ultimately dismissed and sealed, Seager said during a press conference on Friday.

"It's a long process and I think it's a big waste of time for the police department and the courts," Seager said.

After hearing about cases like Seager's, Assemblyman Dan Quart penned a bill that would curb the arrest of electricians, construction workers, carpenters, delivery and maintenance workers and others for having knives intended for use at work. The bill, which passed in the assembly last week, would change the definition of "gravity knife" to no longer include a knife that has a spring that requires a person's force to open or close it.

The law was put in place in the 1950s to deter youth gangs from using knives with large blades that were released easily with little force, but now Quart says it's out of date.

"Today, in New York City, people who purchase folding knives are being arrested and prosecuted, and some convicted, for something they can buy in a hardware store," Quart said during the press conference. "In a 12-year period, 70,000 people have been arrested under these penal code violations, for simple possession of a folding knife."

Over the last decade, 86 percent of those arrested for possession of a gravity knife have been black or Latino, according to the Brooklyn Defender Services, which supports the bill.

Those who are arrested are usually jailed and could potentially lose their jobs, get a criminal record or lose their children to foster care, BDS says.

"The law punishes people who need to open a knife with one hand while doing something with their other hand, like balancing on a scaffold, using a tool to do something else," said Joseph DeMatteo, a former prosecutor. "Any knife can used as a weapon if that's the intent of the person. Those are the knives that should be punished as weapons."

District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. has opposed changing the gravity knife law, saying in his letter to the editor in the New York Times this week that it has enhanced public safety.

He argued that in 2015 fewer than 2 percent of all misdemeanor prosecutions in Manhattan were for the possession of gravity knives.

"We share his concerns about the current law ensnaring tradespeople, and have suggested reasonable solutions that recognize the legitimate concerns of workers who use this category of knives at their jobs, without compromising public safety. Knives are used more frequently than guns to wound, maim, slash, and kill — any change in the law should not jeopardize public safety," a spokeswoman for the DA told DNAinfo New York on Friday. “The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office previously provided constructive feedback on Assembly Member Quart’s bill, seeking only to mitigate the harmful consequences of the legislation he is co-sponsoring to decriminalize a deadly class of illegal weapons."

But Quart said Vance's suggestions like a licensing for such knives would be "borderline absurd," because of the sheer number of knives without serial numbers and the question of how the city would pay for the licensing program.

The spokeswoman for the DA's office clarified they looked to require licenses for individuals, not knives.

Senator Diane Savino of Staten Island is now working to see the bill pass the Senate.

A knife advocacy group is currently suing the city and the DA for promoting the removal of knives on the street. The group, Knife Rights out of Arizona, is asking for a ruling from a federal judge to clarify what they believe is a poor application of the state's penal code.