In retrospect, Richard Neal knows he should have just gone home.
It was already nearly 4 a.m. on a sticky June night in 2008, and the LaGuardia Houses on the Lower East Side were crawling with cops. It was the kind of situation Neal normally prefers to avoid. Where police are, he'd rather not be.
A trim, soft-spoken 59-year-old, Neal has had his share of problems with the law. More than his share, in fact, as he'll readily admit. He has spent nearly a quarter of his life in prison. There was a burglary charge in 1978, followed by an assault charge in 1982. A nonviolent drug-distribution charge in 2002 landed him back inside.
Today, he acknowledges these incidents with some regret, in a voice that's incongruously deep and sometimes trails off mournfully. He especially regrets the crimes that involved hurting other people.
But he's a bit old for that kind of thing now. So Neal wasn't worried when he saw police prowling the grounds of the Lower East Side project that night in 2008. For once, Neal wasn't doing anything wrong. Even when two police officers approached and began asking questions, Neal was feeling just fine. His life had been inching back toward some semblance of order recently. After months staying with friends and family and bouncing between city homeless shelters -- common way stations for newly released prisoners -- Neal had finally found an apartment. For the first time in a long time, he had a place of his own. And the fact that his new home was near the LaGuardia Houses, where his ailing mother lived, was just a bonus.
Besides, he'd been out of trouble for a good long while, and he certainly wasn't up to anything that night. He and a friend were just milling around outside the building, watching the action. In court testimony, a police officer would later describe Neal as "very calm," "just talking [and] walking" with his friend. Not making a scene. And when one of the officers, glancing down at Neal's baggy jeans, asked what he had in his pocket, Neal was honest.
"I told him, 'It's a knife,' " Neal says today.
There was no use in hiding it. It was clipped to the side of his jeans, for anyone to see. He'd been using the knife earlier that day, he said, at one of the odd maintenance jobs he'd been working in the years since he'd left prison.
Because of the life he'd led, Neal says, he "knew a little law" by the time he found himself -- at age 53 -- talking to police once again. He knew that the blade on his knife wasn't longer than four inches, the limit under New York City's administrative code. And aside from the length restriction, there's no law against carrying a folding knife in New York. It wasn't a butterfly knife or a brass-knuckle knife, not some exotic weapon from the movies. The Sheffield utility knife Neal had in his pocket is the kind of thing sold at hardware and sporting-goods stores all over the city. At the time, that model and ones more or less identical to it were stocked at Auto Zone, Pep Boys, Home Depot, Paragon Sports, and several other reputable hardware and outdoor-gear shops in the
five boroughs. It's the kind of thing your outdoorsy uncle might carry. Today you can buy one on Amazon for less than 15 bucks.
Neal says he didn't start worrying that night until the officer used the term "gravity knife." He'd never heard that phrase before. And he really started to worry when the officer explained that his little Sheffield could land him in prison -- for years.
Neal ended that night in a squad car. There was only one problem: The knife he was carrying was not a gravity knife. At least, not by most of the world's definition.
According to the vast majority of police departments and district attorneys in New York State -- not to mention knife manufacturers, labor unions, and almost everyone else who knows a thing about knives -- what Neal was carrying was a perfectly legal folding knife. When gravity knives were banned under New York State law in the 1950s, the legislature actually had a very specific style of weapon in mind -- a foot-long terror that bears no resemblance to a knife like the one Neal had. True gravity knives, for all intents and purposes, have been extinct for the better part of a century; today they're relegated mostly to the antiques section on eBay.
Nonetheless, under the department's unique interpretation of Penal Code 265.01, almost every pocketknife on the market today can be considered a gravity knife. It's as if authorities in New York City were using an antiquated law against flintlock muskets to prosecute BB-gun owners.
And the prohibition is as strict as it is all-encompassing. A knife that can be shoehorned into that definition is not only illegal to carry, it's illegal to possess at all, even within one's home. The only narrow exceptions apply to those "actively engaged" in hunting and fishing, and are essentially meaningless in New York City.
The penalties are severe, too, as Neal would learn. As a prior offender, he was eligible for a felony "bump up," rendering the pocketknife Neal possessed the legal equivalent of an unlicensed, unloaded pistol. Though the court said he likely had no idea his knife was illegal, and he wasn't accused of using it toward any nefarious end, he was convicted nonetheless.
After a series of appeals, he was sentenced to six years in prison.
These days, Neal is circumspect. "If I knew that knife had the capabilities of a gravity knife," he says, "I would have never had it in my pocket." The police in his neighborhood knew him. Why would he have given them an excuse to engage?
It's now June of this year, and Neal's seated on a couch in his daughter's apartment, at the Polo Grounds housing project in East Harlem, hands clasped atop his lap. He's been out of prison a few weeks, having served his maximum sentence. He's missed a lot in that time -- not least the birth of his grandchild, cooing just a few feet away, and the death of his mother, who succumbed to heart disease while he was gone. Through tears, he recalls being released just long enough to attend her wake.
Neal believes he was treated unfairly, and perhaps that's not surprising. But what may be surprising is how many people agree with him