Dan Quart Rips Veto of Ban on Knife Used by Tradespeople

BY LEVAR ALONZO | For the second straight year, Governor Andrew Cuomo has vetoed a bill that would have changed the existing rules on pocketknives known as gravity knives and used in trades jobs. Under current law these knives are illegal, but advocates say the ban is disproportionately used against minorities.

“I’m truly disappointed in the governor,” said State Assemblymember Dan Quart, who represents the Upper East Side and Midtown East. “For the second year in a row this legislation was overwhelmingly supported by a broad and diverse coalition. And, for the second year in a row, it was vetoed by one single signature.”

In 2016, the State Assembly and Senate overwhelmingly passed the legislation, but it was opposed by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., and then vetoed by the governor.

The Legislature acted again this year, but was once again snubbed.

The current law, which dates back six decades, bans knives that can be opened with the flick of a wrist. The law’s original aim was to crack down on large doo-wop era switchblades, but has in recent years been used to arrest people for common folding knives. Gravity knives, often used by tradespeople, including electricians, plumbers, and construction workers, are available at hardware stores.

“Make no mistake, this veto will have real life consequences for New York families,” said Quart. “Electricians, plumbers, laborers, and many more have shared their stories of ending up with a criminal record or in Rikers Island due to carrying a work tool they bought in a local hardware store. We could have prevented these results and put an end to these discriminatory prosecutions.”

The vetoed measure, sponsored in the Assembly by Quart, aims to redefine which knives are illegal under the law. A peculiarity in the language of existing law defines any knife that can be opened with the flick of a wrist as one that can land the owner in jail.

According to Quart, the NYPD has determined that any folding blade on the market can be opened with a practiced snap, even it was never designed to operate that way.

A Legal Aid Society map of gravity knife arrests in the second half of 2015 demonstrates that they disproportionately target Manhattanites. | Image courtesy of Legal Aid Society

Quart cited reports indicating that of the 60,000 New Yorkers who were arrested between 2003 and 2013 for gravity knife possession, 86 percent were black or Hispanic.

Quart explained that his bill would eliminate a distinction btween commonly used folding knives and illegal gravity knives to protect innocent New Yorkers from unjust arrests. By removing the term “centrifugal force” from existing state law, his measure would prevent a “wrist flick” test from being used by law enforcement to target those carrying gravity knives. 

But in vetoing the gravity knife measure twice, the governor has contended that it would make any folding knife legal.

Advocates for the bill said that it is time for the measure to be enacted because the laws are focused primarily on minorities, especially in Manhattan.

Quart said that Vance’s opposition could be a critical factor in Cuomo’t thinking. “He not behind the governor but in rather in front of him leading the charge to shoot down the bill at all cost,” Quart said of Vance.

The Legal Aid Society noted that prosecutors can link a gravity knife arrest to a previous crime and them “bump up” the charge from a misdemeanor to a felony. The legal services organization found that the Manhattan DA’s office was far more likely to increase charges than any other DA’s office in the city.

The group cited statistics from the second half of 2015, when it represented 65 Manhattan clients charged with felony possession of a gravity knife, and of that number, 90 percent were black or Latino.

“New Yorkers, especially in the borough of Manhattan, face the continuation of discriminatory arrests and prosecutions thanks to unjust opposition in Albany,” said Quart.  “Communities of color will have no relief from the Manhattan district attorney’s pattern of prosecuting poor people for possessing this simple work tool.”

Quart said he intends to reintroduce the bill again in the upcoming January legislative session.

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