The state’s ban on gravity knives was lifted Thursday evening after Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation striking the weapon from a section of the state’s penal code used commonly to charge individuals who carry the tool as part of their job.
It’s the third time lawmakers approved legislation to end the ban on gravity knives, but the first time Cuomo offered his signature. He vetoed the two previous iterations.
The governor’s perspective on the legislation changed, he said, after a federal judge ruled last year that the state’s ban on the weapon was unconstitutional. Senior Judge Paul Crotty for the Southern District said in the decision that the statute presented a “high risk of arbitrary enforcement.”
Cuomo wrote in his approval memo for the legislation that he couldn’t veto the measure a third time knowing that the statutory ban on gravity knives had been deemed unconstitutional. Opposition to the legislation had previously come from members of law enforcement, he said.
“While I remain aware of the cautious community voices, I cannot veto a bill passed by the legislature to address a decided constitutional infirmity in existing law, as recently affirmed by a federal court,” Cuomo wrote. “I remain confident that our law enforcement community will continue to keep our communities safe by pursuing anyone who uses, or attempts to use, one of these knives in an unlawful manner.”
The bill was carried by Assemblyman Dan Quart, D-Manhattan, and state Sen. Diane Savino, D-Staten Island. Quart, an attorney, said the legislation will have a wide-ranging impact for people who previously faced criminal charges for carrying something they use for work.
“I’m just very happy and pleased the governor saw fit to sign the legislation, and this will have a significant impact,” Quart said. “Thousands of people will no longer be arrested in New York City for the simple possession of a worktool. That is significant.”
The measure is intended to eliminate the option for members of law enforcement to charge someone for simply carrying what could be considered a gravity knife under current state law, but is used commonly in a number of trades, like construction or even theater.
The bill, which passed unanimously in the legislature earlier this month, removes gravity knives from sections of the state penal law that can be used to charge someone with possessing certain weapons. That way, prosecutors can’t charge someone with carrying something that might meet the definition of a gravity knife under state law.
Prosecutors and other members of law enforcement had been accused of using the previous law to target low-income people of color with jobs that require them to carry such a knife, which is identified by a so-called ‘flick test.’ That’s when police flick their wrist while holding the knife to see if it opens without additional effort.
That kind of test can be subject to abuse, the bill’s supporters have said. Law enforcement officers can flick the knife several times to see if it opens before they charge an individual with possession. That’s where the arbitrary enforcement arguments come in.
Defenders cheered the bill’s approval Thursday. Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the criminal defense practice at the Legal Aid Society, said the previous law was exploited by members of law enforcement, particularly the New York City Police Department.
“Governor Cuomo’s signature brings an end one of the most discriminatory policing practices in our state, an invidious practice where tens of thousands of Black and Latinx New Yorkers were arrested for merely possessing tools that sell at retailers throughout the city,” Luongo said. “For far too long, the NYPD exploited the gravity knife ban to drive up arrest numbers at the expense of our clients, all of whom were innocent of any wrongdoing.”
The change in law takes effect immediately, according to the bill.