It's not every day you see a federal judge flick open a gravity knife from behind the bench.
Southern District Judge Katherine Forrest wasn't menacing anyone Thursday, nor was she trying to win acceptance from a street gang. She was just trying her hand at opening a knife that is currently illegal under a New York law that sellers and purchasers say should be ruled unconstitutional.
Forrest is presiding over a bench trial where the plaintiffs are seeking declaratory and injunctive relief blocking enforcement of state laws §265.0(5) and §265.01(1)—laws they say expose people who use everyday folding knives for their jobs or simple tasks, and not as weapons, to criminal liability.
Gravity knives are defined as any knife which has a blade that is released from the handle or sheath "by the force of gravity or the application of centrifugal force" and when released is locked in place "by means of a button, spring, lever, or other device."
Police and prosecutors have long arrested and charged people with possession of a gravity knife if the knife passes the so-called "wrist flick" test that Forrest employed in court Thursday.
The named plaintiff in the case is John Copeland, an artist who said he uses knives for his work and is well aware of the law. Copeland bought the knife at a store in 2009 and immediately asked two police officers to apply the "wrist flick" test.
While neither officer could open the knife that way, in October 2010, Copeland was stopped by two officers who were able to open the knife using what he said were exceptionally forceful wrist flicks.
"A person has no way to know that's a gravity knife or whether they will be prosecuted," plaintiffs' lawyer Daniel Schmutter told the court Thursday in Copeland v. Vance, 11-cv-03918.
Forrest dismissed the case, which includes a second individual plaintiff and a knife seller, Native Leather, for lack of standing in 2013 but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reinstated it in 2015 (NYLJ, Sept. 23, 2015).
Native Leather was charged in 2010 as part of an initiative by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. in which he pursued seven retailers who ultimately paid almost $1.8 million in fines.
Native Leather entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with Vance's office.
The law has been criticized by civil liberties advocates as vague because it has been enforced against people possessing simple folding knives—and because they say it has been disproportionately enforced against minorities.
But the suit before Forrest may be short-lived. On Wednesday, the state Legislature passed a bill (A09042/S06483) to reform the law and exclude simple folding knives. The measure now awaits the signature of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Schmutter, of Hartman & Winnicki in Ridgewood, New Jersey, did his own demonstration on a series of knives Thursday and the District Attorney's Office submitted its own video demonstration. The demonstrations were also recorded for the Second Circuit's benefit should there be an appeal.
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