I lived in New York for a few years — first upstate and then down in the city. During this time, I resigned myself to the fact that I should never carry a knife outside a slipjoint concealed deep in my pocket. This is why:
On a ruling of 6-1, the state’s highest court upheld the conviction of a man who had an assisted-opening knife under the theory that it was an illegal switchblade.
How did not just one but several courts agree that a spring-assisted knife was a switchblade? Let’s try to follow the logic.
Facts About the Case
Let’s start with some details about the case.
Defendant Steven Berrezueta was on his way to work at the mailroom of an investment company when he was stopped and arrested in the subway after an officer noticed a knife protruding from his rear pants’ pocket.
It doesn’t say the type of knife except that it was a “United States Army-themed knife” that he bought off the internet for use in his job in the mailroom. I imagine it was a dirt cheap knife like this one. There is talk of a button, but I think they might mean flipper tab. Not too sure about that one.
So, Berrezueta was charged with carrying a switchblade among other things.
Here’s what the arresting officer alleged:
“I observed a knife clipped to the defendant’s rear right pants pocket so thatI could see the entire clip and the head of the knife protruding from his pocket while the defendant was standing in the mezzanine area in the transit facility at the above location, a public place.
I took a switchblade knife from the defendant’s rear right pants pocket. The defendant is not law enforcement personnel and could not produce a valid license or permit to carry such knife.
I know that the knife is in fact a switchblade knife based on my training and experience as a police officer and because, when I applied hand pressure to a spring-loaded portion of the blade of the knife protruding from the handleof the knife, the blade swung open automatically.”
Well, let’s look at what the law actually says.
Conflicting Definitions of a Switchblade
The New York Penal Code defines an illegal switchblade knife as follows:
“Switchblade knife” means any knife which has a blade which opens automatically by hand pressure applied to a button, spring or other device in the handle of the knife.
You may not agree with it, but the wording is plain and simple. (For a refresher on the difference between a switchblade and assisted-opening knife, check out our article.)
The officer who arrested Berrezueta testified conflicting information but often said that the button was attached to the blade. By his own words, the button that opens the knife was not in the handle but was on the blade.
In a long and scathing dissenting opinion, Judge Jenny Rivera says that the handle and blade are two different things:
The accusatory instrument describes the knife found on defendant as having “a spring-loaded portion of the blade of the knife protruding from the handle of the knife” and at trial the arresting officer testified that the spring mechanism was “in the blade.”
Neither description comports with the Penal Law definition of a switchblade as a knife whose bladeopens automatically “by hand pressure applied to a button, spring or other device in thehandle of the knife” (Penal Law § 265.00 ). A knife’s blade and handle are two different entities, and no amount of legal finessing can change that simple fact.
Rivera wrote a dissent that was analytical and thorough. It is thoughtful and reasoned and clearly considers every aspect of the case. The majority opinion upholding the conviction, on the other hand, is only a paragraph long and reads like they didn’t even understand the case.
Basically, the judges said that the evidence in the trial showed it was a switchblade… so it was.
What the Ruling Means
This continues New York’s support of a broad interpretation of a switchblade. The scary thing is that this ruling could have even larger ramifications.
Here’s more from Knife Rights:
In addition to completely redefining what a knife’s handle is, essentially eliminating the difference between the handle and the blade, the Court disregarded the fundamental difference in how the two types of knives operate – switchblades being automatic (an essential element of the definition) while assisted-openers are not.
Given that this confusion goes against clear historical precedent and that nobody in the real world is likely to interpret that statute in that manner, it creates a trap for all knife owners who would rationally never consider an assisted-opening folder to be a switchblade, especially if they were intimately familiar with plain wording of New York’s switchblade statue.
The knife advocacy organization is currently taking on the gravity laws of New York City, but even if they win that case, this broad interpretation puts countless owners of legal assisted-openers across the state at risk for prosecution.
This means that if you’re in the state of New York and are caught with a spring-assisted knife, you could risk arrest and jail time.
The only thing you should carry in the state is a small slipjoint that’s inside your pocket and not clipped to it. Even then, you could be at risk, depending on the arresting officer.
Pretty much all sides of the political spectrum want these laws removed or at least clarified. The only people who want these laws in effect are law enforcement officials who use them to arrest people of color and law-abiding citizens.