For years, New York's gravity-knife law has been formally opposed by a broad swath of the legal community. Elected officials call the statute "flawed" and "unfair." Defense attorneys call it "outrageous" and "ridiculous" -- or worse. Labor unions, which have seen a parade of members arrested for tools they use on the job, say the law is woefully outdated. Even the Office of Court Administration -- the official body of the New York State judiciary -- says the law is unjustly enforced and needs to change. They've petitioned the legislature to do just that.
But despite significant pushback from many legal experts, the half-century-old statute is the same as it ever was. In fact, it's been enforced with increasing frequency in recent years. Neal didn't know it at the time, but on that summer evening in 2008, he became part of a remarkable surge in gravity-knife arrests in New York City over the past 10 years.
Law enforcement agencies don't track gravity-knife crimes as a class, which may explain why the frequency of those arrests has gone largely unreported in the news media. But a Village Voice analysis of data from several sources suggests there have been as many as 60,000 gravity-knife prosecutions over the past decade, and that the rate has more than doubled in that time. If those estimates are correct, it's enough to place gravity-knife offenses among the top 10 most prosecuted crimes in New York City.
The increase seems to be the result of a confluence of forces. Changes in knife design have played a part, as modern features have nudged the most popular styles closer to the edge of the legal definition. But the NYPD's stop-and-frisk program also may be one driver. A prime rationale for the policy has always been weapon recovery; former NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly put that goal front and center in a 2013 Wall Street Journal op-ed, pointing out that stop-and-frisk had "taken tens of thousands of weapons off the street" over the previous decade.
But about 80 percent of weapons recovered under stop-and-frisk were knives, according to an analysis of the department's own statistics. And experts say the vast majority of those were likely misclassified as "gravity knives." Whether deliberate or not, dramatically expanding the definition of an illegal knife has not only landed thousands of innocent people in jail -- it also had the effect of making stop-and-frisk appear far more effective than it actually was.