Anthony Sculimbrene, Esq.
Michigan v. Mata
Decided: January 21, 2003
Kershaw Speedsafe knife not banned by Michigan law prohibiting automatic knives.
The court in this case simply adopted the brief submitted by defense counsel as its order, appending a few sentences onto the brief as its order. As such, we do not know much about the factual background of the case. One important point is that the Defendant submitted an exhibit to the court – a mock-up of the knife in question provided by Kershaw that showed the mechanism and seemingly explained how it worked.
The Defendant was charged with violating a Michigan statute that made it illegal to sell or possess a pocket knife that opened by a mechanical device. There are three kinds of knives banned by the statute: 1) those that open with “a flick of a button;” 2) those that open when pressure is placed on the blade; and 3) a catchall for any knife that can be “opened by…other mechanical contrivance…” The Defendant had a Kershaw Speedsafe knife (in this case the court noted that it was the Ken Onion designed 1560 Whirlwind).
The Defendant made two arguments. First he argued that the statute was void for vagueness because it failed to adequately describe a knife that “opened” via a “mechanical contrivance.” The statute failed to define both the term “open” and the term “mechanical contrivance.” As such, the statute was not clear enough to put a normal person on notice that their conduct was illegal. Second, the Defendant argued that the court had to inspect the knife before ruling. He argued that the Speedsafe design did not fit the definition of the third class of banned knives (assuming it was not void for vagueness) because it first had to be opened manually by the user before the “cam-like” feature completed the opening processing.
The court agreed with the Defendant’s argument although it is not clear which argument won the day. The court found that there were no cases interpreting the terms “open” or “mechanical contrivance” and thus found that the knife was not prohibited by the statute. The court ordered that the charge be dismissed and that the knife be returned to the Defendant intact.
Notes for Knife Owners
This case provides yet another example of how the public perception of knives and the knife owner’s perception of knives diverges. Knife owners know there is a big difference between an assisted knife and an automatic, but the difference was so lost on the State that the Defendant was charged with a crime for possessing a Speedsafe knife. This case also illustrates another point: some knives, because of their design, are riskier to carry than others even if they are ultimately deemed legal by a court. The fact that the Whirlwind opens quickly and seemingly “automatically” is probably why the Defendant was charged with a crime. A traditional knife with a nail nick likely would have drawn no attention.
- Point 1: Always be aware that the general public perceives knives differently than knowledgeable knife owners do.
- Point 2: Some knives are, because of their design, riskier to carry than others.
Notes for Attorneys
This case is a district court case, which, in Michigan is the lowest court in the system. As such, it has limited precedential value. It is primarily of persuasive value, even in Michigan. This case illustrates a quick and dirty, but effective, approach to challenging a statute as void for vagueness. It is important to note that this challenge is, generally speaking, hard to mount as courts are loathe to strike a statute as a whole or in a specific case. Though not explicit, this case seems to mount a less difficult “as applied” challenge to the statute. If faced with the possibility of making a void for vagueness argument remember that the as applied argument is easier to win than the void on its face argument. If you have a case where the knife is relatively innocuous looking (from the perspective of a member of the general public, NOT a knowledgeable knife owner) asking the court to inspect it may be helpful. Vet the knife carefully before making such a request. Also, this case had an exhibit showing the workings of the knife. If possible, secure such an exhibit before the hearing/motion as it may be helpful to the judge. Again, vet the exhibit to make sure it is clear and to make sure it does not seem “scary” to a non-knife person.
- Point 1: If challenging a statute as vague, try the easier “as applied” route.
- Point 2: Have non-knife people view the knife and submit it as an exhibit if the results are favorable.
- Point 3: Schematics, demos, and engineering documents may help.