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Knife Laws Complicate Freddie Grey Debate

By Samuel Miller

Impunity Watch Reporter, North America and Oceania


BALTIMORE, United States of America  

A court fight has emerged over a knife in the possession of Freddie Gray at the time of his death at the hands of six Baltimore police officers. Baltimore State Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby said when announcing charges against the six officers that the knife was not an illegal switchblade under Maryland law. Baltimore police have said the knife violated city code.

The six officers charged with the murder of Freddie Gray. (Photo Courtesy of ABC News)

The knife has not been shown to the public; as of now, it is unclear which interpretation is appropriate.

In Baltimore, it is illegal to sell, carry, or possess any knife with an automatic spring or other device for opening and/or closing the blade.  Baltimore City Code, Article 19, Section 59-22 states: “It shall be unlawful for any person to sell, carry, or possess any knife with an automatic spring or other device for opening and/or closing the blade, commonly known as a switch-blade knife.”

Andrew Alperstein, a defense attorney from Baltimore City, commented on the effect of the Baltimore City Code.

“Baltimore City has a law that says it’s not only illegal to have a switchblade, but it’s also illegal to have a spring-action knife.” Alperstein also noted the adding that the charges could have a chilling effect on police doing their job in the future. “The prosecutor has said if you violate the law by arresting these people falsely, then we’re going to charge you with assault for false imprisonment.”

Former Baltimore Deputy State’s Attorney Page Croyder agreed with the assessment by Alperstein.

“You’re setting a precedent that any police officer who arrests without probable cause can not just be civilly sued, but criminally charged.” Croyder also noted the impact such a decision could have on law enforcement. “As long as officers are acting in good faith, to subject them to criminal charges is going to put a chill on the whole police department.”

Under Maryland law, knives without “switchblades” are not considered weapons. Under Code of Maryland, Section 4-105, “A person may not sell, barter, display, or offer to sell or barter: a knife or a penknife having a blade that opens automatically by hand pressure applied to a button, spring, or other device in the handle of the knife, commonly called a switchblade knife or a switchblade penknife.”

Jan Billeb, executive director of the American Knife & Tool Institute, advocated for greater knife rights in the United States. “How’s a person supposed to know what the law is, and how are they supposed to know that there’s a difference in the law between jurisdictions”, said Billeb.

Doug Ritter, founder and chair of Knife Rights Inc., said most knife experts would disagree that Gray’s knife was illegal.

“It’s ridiculous that someone traveling through a metropolitan area can go through a dozen city lines crossing a metropolitan lines and have to deal with a half a dozen laws regarding the knife in his pocket,” Ritter said. Knife right groups are fighting for state pre-emption knife laws, which would stop towns, cities and counties from enacting knife laws different from what has been approved by the state.

But Maryland law does not specifically define what a switchblade is, leaving courts to make that interpretation.

For more information, please see:

ABC News — Varying Knife Laws Can Confuse Across State, Local Lines — 18 May 2015

Associated Press — Varying Knife Laws Can Confuse Across State, Local Lines — 18 May 2015

Baltimore Sun — Freddie Gray’s knife could be key factor as charges challenged — 9 May 2015

CNN — Was Freddie Gray’s knife legal? — 6 May 2015

ICTJ | World Report May 2015 – Transitional Justice News and Analysis