Judge Tries Flicking Open Pocketknife in Test at Hearing


Even a federal judge tried her hand at flicking open a pocketknife as a state law banning gravity knives was tested in open court Thursday.

Judge Katherine Forrest in Manhattan flicked open a decades-old knife, and it popped out with ease. An artist and an art dealer charged in 2010 with misdemeanor criminal possession of a weapon and a retail store that sells common folding knives are challenging a state law created in the 1950s as too vague to enforce.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Daniel Schmutter demonstrated about a dozen knives with blades shorter than 4 inches along with Doug Ritter, chairman of the Knife Rights organization, to show that the city’s test as to whether a pocketknife is legal — a flick of the wrist — is insufficient to charge someone criminally.

As an assistant U.S. marshal observed the knives, the judge twice warned a court stenographer to move a safe distance from the demonstration while a man hired by the plaintiffs videotaped the demonstration for evidence. The city submitted its own videotape of knives being snapped open, but its lawyers declined an invitation from Schmutter to join the live demonstration.

Repeatedly, Ritter threw his arm down hard as he tried to open knives. His face turned red, and he sometimes seemed in pain. On several occasions, he did so six or seven times before the blade popped out. At least once, Schmutter casually flicked the blade out of the same knife on the first try. At other times, Ritter more easily brought a blade out.

Schmutter said only three of about a dozen knives shown to the court were true gravity knives, while the rest might be determined by the city to be illegal knives if a police officer is able to flick them open. Because the ability to open various knives can vary from person to person, Schmutter said, a knife buyer is put in the position of facing prosecution depending on which officer tries to open the knife.

“There’s literally no way you can determine what’s legal,” he said.

Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Dan Rather testified that the knives Schmutter demonstrated would not have resulted in criminal charges. He ridiculed the knife-flicking display for the “exaggerated shoulder movement and foot stomping.”

Assistant District Attorney Patricia Bailey said the law has survived decades of court scrutiny and should be upheld. Meanwhile, state legislators in Albany have presented Gov. Andrew Cuomo with proposed changes to the law that Ritter has said would render the 5-year-old lawsuit moot.