Baltimore Detective Dawnyell Taylor demonstrates how to open and close the knife that was found on Freddie Gray when he was arrested. (Baltimore Sun video)
A knife expert who prosecutors were prepared to call in the Freddie Gray case said Baltimore's law on switchblades is too vague, creating problems for people who carry certain types of knives as well as police officers trying to enforce the law.
City prosecutors initially said Gray's April 2015 arrest was unjustified because the knife he was carrying was not a switchblade and therefore legal under Maryland law. But defense attorneys argued prosecutors had overlooked a city statute that includes language that would ban the knife.
The Sun recently obtained video that shows for the first time how the knife operated. The video was filmed by Baltimore Police Det. Dawnyell Taylor in July 2015, and shows her pressing a flipper above the handle, causing the blade to open. She notes tension that causes the knife to pop back open if not fully shut.
"That's what you call spring-assisted," she says to the camera.
Gray, 25, suffered a severe spinal injury in the back of a police van following his arrest and died a week later. Six police officers involved in his arrest and transport were criminally charged with offenses ranging from second-degree depraved-heart murder to manslaughter, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office.
The city's ordinance dates to 1950 and is titled, "Switch-blade knives." It prohibits anyone from selling, carrying or possessing "any knife with an automatic spring or other device for opening and/or closing the blade, commonly known as a switch-blade knife."
Sean Norris, the owner of Edgeworks Knife & Supply in Frederick, was set to testify as a prosecution expert and said he believes the knife Gray was carrying falls outside the city ordinance on banned knives and was legal. But he also said it has features that match the wording in the definition in the ordinance, which hasn't been updated in decades.
"Because these laws are vaguely worded, it's up to the interpretation of the officer in the field and the judge overseeing the case," Norris told The Sun. "I normally try to get people to err on the safer side. In my interpretation, it's legal."
The knife issue ultimately became moot at the officers' trials, with prosecutors arguing Gray was illegally detained before the knife was found.
Eighteen months after Gray's arrest, prosecutors and police still disagree on whether the knife was legal.
Chief Deputy State's Attorney Michael Schatzow said Monday that the knife was "simply an excuse" for officers to arrest Gray. He maintained that Gray's knife doesn't fit under the city law, which he says is clear.
"The statute is talking about a switchblade knife, and this is not a switchblade knife," he said.
Police spokesman T.J. Smith on Monday that "the arrest was deemed legal and the weapon was deemed illegal" and police have not changed their training on the issue.
Defense attorneys say the knife met the city definition of banned knives, but add that the debate itself proves the officers committed no crime when they arrested Gray. They say countless people continue to be arrested and prosecuted for carrying such knives.
"The question is, on its face, did my client have probable cause to arrest [Gray], and if it's that complicated to determine if it's legal or illegal, that satisfies the question," said Catherine Flynn, one of the attorneys for Officer Garrett Miller, who found the knife clipped to Gray's pants and filed charges with a District Court commissioner.
The six officers were ultimately cleared in the case, with a judge acquitting three of them in bench trials earlier this year and prosecutors dropping charges against the other three in July.
University of Baltimore law professor David Jaros said it was "embarrassing" that the issues raised by the case hadn't prompted the city council to revisit and clarify the law on knives.
"It allows individuals to be stopped on the street and prosecuted," Jaros said.
Norris, the Frederick knife store owner, said the knife has a spring mechanism which "kicks in at about 30 percent after opening, and builds up pressure and opens it another 30 degrees."
Flynn says "the statute [bans] any device to aid in the opening or closing of the weapon." The wording of the statute appeared designed to differentiate switchblades and other spring-assisted knives, which can be opened with one hand, from folding knives, which require two hands, she said.
Miller, her client, "made two dozen arrests for spring-assisted knives [before Gray], and at no point did a prosecutor say to him, 'This isn't a valid charge,'" Flynn said. "The state's attorney's office prosecutes these people."
But Schatzow says Gray's knife has to be opened or closed by a hand movement and doesn't have an "automatic spring" as the ordinance requires. Schatzow read the patent for the weapon, and said it doesn't have a spring at all, but a device that acts as one.
Prosecutors have noted that a similar type knife is sold to police officers at The Cop Shop, a supply store near police headquarters. And they said one of the officers charged in Gray's death was in possession of the same type of knife "on the very day Mr. Gray was arrested," though they declined to say who.
"We did quite a bit of research about this, and I'm confident that what some people refer to as a spring, this knife does not have that," Schatzow said.
Baltimore's switchblade ban was last updated in 1983, and since then new knife technology has emerged, in some cases in an attempt to get around switchblade bans around the country. "The assisted-operating knives didn't come out until 1999, and that law hasn't been updated through any of the newer technologies," Norris said.