Anthony Sculimbrene, Esq.
Copeland v. Vance
2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11654 (January 27, 2017)
The gravity knife law in New York is not overly vague.
This case is exceptionally complex. There are many parts and many related cases.
One of the plaintiffs is a store owner ran a store called Native Leather. They sold a wide variety of knives including, as referenced in the case, Benchmade knives. After a police officer inspected the knives and used the Wrist Flick test (a technique taught at the police academy whereby an officer opens a knife with one hand using a quick snap of the wrist) on the knives in question. He determined that the knives violated the New York gravity knife law. Native Leather entered an agreement with the District Attorney. In exchange for giving up the prosecution, Native Leather would agree to have its knives monitored by the District Attorney.
The other plaintiff is an art dealer. The art dealer was walking in New York City when a police officer noticed a pocket clip on his pants pocket. The officer stopped the art dealer and inspected the knife, a Gerber. He attempted to open the knife via the Wrist Flick test and the knife passed (did not open). Some time later, the same thing happened, but this time the knife failed (opened). The art dealer was given a ticket for the gravity knife charge and he too resolved his case.
After the criminal cases were resolved the two plaintiffs joined together, supported by Knife Rights, and sued the District Attorney that prosecuted them. Normally the government can’t be sued because of the legal principle of sovereign immunity. However, there are many exceptions and one involves suits against government actors for conduct that deprives a person of their civil rights. This exception is found at 42 USC 1983 and is called a “1983 case.” It is usually used to sue police for excessive force or government actors for discrimination, but it has a lot of different uses.
The plaintiffs argued that their right to due process was violated by the District Attorney’s prosecution of the knife charges. The plaintiffs presented two experts, one on knife mechanisms and one on knife history. Doug Ritter of Knife Rights also gave a presentation to the court on their behalf that was sent subject to cross examination. The District Attorney called a variety of police officers to testify and called an Associate District Attorney to the stand that conducted many of the Wrist Flick examinations of knives during prosecution of knife cases.
Specifically plaintiffs challenged the gravity knife law claiming it was vague as applied to their cases because the Wrist Flick test was too inconsistent to provide people with notice of prohibited knives. The argument had three parts. First, they argued that the test was not actually the right test to use. The gravity law prohibits knives that open by gravity or by application of centrifugal force. The Wrist Flick test did not, according to the plaintiffs’ knife mechanism expert, involve either gravity or centrifugal force. Second, they argued that the term “gravity knife” had a specific historical meaning and the knives swept up by the vague statute were not knives within that historical meaning. Third, they argued, as the art dealer’s case showed, that the Wrist Flick test was inconsistent and thus the statute was vague.
The defendant rebutted these arguments with data about the application of the law, the number of times it was applied, and testimony about the Wrist Flick test and how it is taught in the police academy. The defendant also claimed that the plaintiffs argument was not a challenge to the law as applied, but a challenge to the law on its face. Finally, the defendants argued that the plaintiffs experts did not provide relevant testimony.
The court agreed with the defendant on all counts. First, it agreed that the plaintiffs challenge was not to the statute as applied but the statute on its face and that kind of challenge was much harder to win. Second, the court rejected the experts’ claims. It rejected the knife mechanism expert’s argument because it was not about the mechanisms themselves but how to interpret the statute, namely, what constituted centrifugal force. Interpreting statutes, as the court noted, is the sole job of the court and experts cannot provide this kind of testimony. It also rejected the historical argument. It noted that while words in statutes are usually given their everyday, historical meaning, unless they are specifically defined otherwise in the statute. Here the gravity knife statutes defined gravity knives differently than the historical understanding of the term, but that different definition controls. Finally, it noted that while enforcement of the law under the Wrist Flick test was inconsistent and imperfect, as the art dealer’s case demonstrated, it was not 100% arbitrary given the numbers the defendant provided. Showing that a law is imperfect or somewhat inconsistent is not enough to undermine its validity.
As such the 1983 suit was dismissed and the Wrist Flick test in the gravity law statute was upheld as not vague.
Notes for Knife Owners
The lessons for knife owners from this case are pretty stark. First, given how broadly the law is interpreted, how aggressive the police are in enforcing it, and how bad the penalties can be, it is probably not a good idea to carry a knife in New York unless you are 100% sure it is legal. The other sad lesson here is that often the everyday understanding of a knife is not the same as the legal definition of that knife. While most knife owners know what a gravity knife is and would never think the knives in this case (Benchmades and a Gerber) are gravity knives, the law in New York defines gravity knives differently than they are historically defined. As such, it is not as simple as looking at a law, finding a list of knives by name, and seeing if your knife is named. Figuring out if a particular knife is legal is more complex than that, especially in New York.
- Point 1: Be exceptionally careful carrying a knife in New York State.
- Point 2: Laws can define knife types differently than a knife owner would and the legal definition, not the common everyday definition, controls.
Notes for Attorneys
This case has a number of takeaways for lawyers litigating knife cases. First, 1983 cases are hard to win, especially when the underlying criminal charge is not dismissed completely. Second, when making vagueness arguments be very careful to articulate which version of the vagueness argument you are making. The burden of proof on a facial vagueness challenge is very high. An as-applied challenge has a lower burden of proof, but sometimes the two arguments can appear to merge together. Third, bear in mind the canons of statutory interpretation. Almost all courts use the rule applied here – terms are given their statutory definition, even if that definition varies from the common, everyday understanding of the term. Finally, understand the limitations of experts. They are untethered from the normal witness requirement of firsthand knowledge, but make sure they do not invade the province of the court, but offering statutory interpretations and make sure their testimony combats testimony from other witnesses. Here the court’s opinion makes it appear as though the experts and the plaintiffs in general did not address the data provided by the Defendant in terms of enforcement of the gravity knife law.
- Point 1: 1983 cases are difficult to win, especially when the underlying criminal cases were not dismissed or dropped outright.
- Point 2: Make sure the court understands which vagueness challenge you are raising.
- Point 3: When challenging a knife statute, be aware of the canons of construction and how they can work against your argument.
- Point 4: Don’t rely too heavily on experts and make sure the court understands the scope of their testimony.