BDS, LAS, VOCAL-NY & OTHERS URGE GOVERNOR TO SIGN GRAVITY KNIFE REFORM BILL
On Monday, November 28, BDS attorneys joined the Legal Aid Society of New York, VOCAL-NY, U.S. Representative Hakeem Jeffries, Assembly Member Dan Quart, State Senator Diane Savino, and many others in a rally on the steps of City Hall to urge the Governor to sign a gravity knife reform bill that was overwhelmingly passed by the Legislature in June.
This bill, which was sponsored by Assembly Member Quart and Senator Savino, simply clarifies the definitions of illegal switchblade knives and gravity knives to exclude ordinary folding knives that are commonly sold on-line and in hardware stores to workmen and artisans, and which only specially trained law enforcement officers are able, often only after several tries, to flick open by exertion.
At the rally, Andrea Sáenz, Supervising Attorney for BDS’ Immigration Practice, shared the story of “Ray,” a black immigrant who was arrested on his way home from his warehouse job for possession of a knife he used for work. Ray was ultimately convicted of possessing an illegal weapon. As a result, he is currently in deportation proceedings. The reform bill would prevent hardworking New Yorkers like Ray from being criminalized for carrying their tools.
A 2014 Village Voice analysis found 60,000 gravity knife prosecutions in the last decade. Most cases investigated by the newspaper involved instruments used for work, such as a stagehand’s utility knife, and most involved Black and/or Hispanic New Yorkers. This tracks with BDS’ experience. Our criminal defense attorneys report that nearly every client arrested on this charge is carrying a knife for work. Often, they are maintenance workers, stock room attendants, or other types of laborers. Unfortunately, many cannot obtain verification of their employment because their work is unsteady or informal. The vast majority of BDS clients charged with the relevant offense are Black and/or Hispanic.
The reality is that our clients suffer the serious and lasting harm of so-called gravity knife arrests before we even meet them. We fight like hell in court, but they can still lose their jobs, homes, and children, and – now more than ever – be deported for simple possession of a utility knife they’re required to carry for work. Working New Yorkers of color are particularly likely to be arrested. Many are detained on bail at Rikers Island, the horrors of which are well-documented. Governor Cuomo can finally end this injustice by signing legislation to affirm that manual labor is not a crime. Moreover, he can take a stand for immigrant New Yorkers by protecting them from the damning label of ‘criminal alien’. Now is the time to act.
Check out coverage of the rally by the Village Voice, NY1, NBC I-Team, and WNYC, as well as an op-ed by Walt Seager, an electrician employed by the NYC Dep’t. of Education who was arrested for carrying his tool, in the Albany Times-Union. The New York Times Editorial Board backed the reform bill in May.