Anthony Sculimbrene, Esq.
People v. Castillolopez
3 Cal. 4th 322 (2016)
A Swiss Army style knife is not a locking dagger or dirk knife, even when open, under California law.
The Defendant was in a car as a passenger. At some point a police officer ordered the car to stop. It did not immediately stop and when it did finally come to a rest it was bumper to bumper with the police cruiser. The officer ordered both the driver and the Defendant out of the car at gun point. The driver responded immediately, but the Defendant did not, instead moving around inside the car. When he did finally get out of the car, the police officer pat frisked the defendant and claims to have found a knofe-off Swiss Army knife in the Defendant’s jacket pocket with the main blade opened. The Defendant was then charged with a violation of California’s weapons statute that prohibited the carrying of dirk or dagger. The statute defined these two things in their traditional sense OR as a pocket knife capable of stabbing with an exposed blade that is locked into position.
At trial both sides called experts to testify about whether the knife in question had a blade that could be locked into position. The State’s expert claimed that the slip joint mechanism, which he did not name correctly, constituted a locking blade. He testified that when the blade was open it was held in place by spring tension and that it snapped into place with an audible click. On cross examination the State’s expert admitted that the blade could be closed easily with one hand and without the need to manipulate a locking device. The Defense expert testified that the blade was not a locking blade because it could be easily closed with one hand. Both experts ultimately testified that this particular knife was not a stabbing weapon but a multi-tool or survival tool. The jury sent a question to the trial judge about the definition of a locking knife. After the judge’s answer the Defendant was convicted. Because he had a prior, California’s “Strikes” law kicked in and he was sentenced to a minimum of 3 years and 8 months in prison.
At the appeals court level, two arguments were made – one about whether the definition of “locking blade” was too vague and another about whether the evidence at trial was sufficient to show that this particular knife was, in fact, a locking blade. The appeals court sided with the Defendant and reversed his conviction. The State then appealed with both the local attorney and the California attorney general briefing the issue. The Defendant was supported by two friend of the court briefs, one written by Attorney Dan Lawson for the American Knife & Tool Institute. At the California Supreme Court, the appeals court ruling was upheld and the Defendant’s conviction was vacated. The Supreme Court relied exclusively on the argument about whether the evidence was sufficient to show this particular knife was a locking blade. It ruled that the knife was not a locking blade in light of the common definition of “locking” as meaning “to render immobile.” It vacated the Defendant conviction and sentence.
Notes for Knife Owners
If you own knives, this case represents a worst case scenario averted only on appeal. Knife owners would have instantly known that this knife was not a dirk knife or dagger and would have also instantly known that this was a non-locking knife. But lawyers aren’t necessarily knife owners and neither are judges. That means that what we knife owners know and take for granted is not necessarily how others will perceive and understand our tool. Also, and probably doesn’t need to be mentioned, but don’t carry a folding knife in the open position. Not only is it more dangerous for you, it is also more likely to be seen as a weapon by law enforcement.
- Point 1: Don’t assume everyone shares our understanding of knives and their mechanisms – there was a long and serious debate about whether a slip joint is a locking knife here.
- Point 2: Don’t carry knives in a threatening manner.
Notes for Attorneys
As this case shows, lawyers need to be prepared to contest even the most obvious points. The knife in this particular case has been made for close to a century and the slip joint mechanism has been around even longer and it has always been viewed as the non-locking alternative to a locking knife. It is unclear if this point was made by defense counsel though it was certain made in friend of the court briefs. Additionally, as a point of advocacy, the term “slip joint” is not only technically correct, it also has a very persuasive ring to it in light of the arguments here. If you have such a favorable term stay on message at every point – refer to the knife mechanism as a slip joint over and over again as it is sounds like the very antithesis of a locking mechanism. This case also shows the power of cross examination. Both experts were helpful to the defense, and the State’s expert was coaxed in that direction largely because of a very good cross. Be prepared when crossing experts. The rules generally allow experts to testify more broadly which, in turn, opens up areas for cross examination. This was a rare case overturned on the sufficiency of the evidence. Generally this argument is the last bastion of a losing appeal, but here, given the incredible facts and arguments made by the State, it won the day. One last note – the facts themselves seem facially implausible. It does not make sense nor does it seem reasonable that someone would store a folding knife IN THE OPEN POSITION in their pocket, a commonly used jacket pocket, no less. Though this is not something that could be challenged on appeal, it is worth challenging this sort of testimony at the trial level through careful cross examination. Had this ridiculous contention been sufficiently challenged at the trial level, there is little likelihood the case would have ventured beyond that point. Instead, the record seems to indicate that the Defense accepted as true the police officer’s assertion about the knife being stored in the open position.
- Point 1: Assume nothing when it comes to arguments by the prosecution – they argued for years in this case that a Swiss Army style knife slip joint was a locking knife
- Point 2: Sometimes the facts give you amazing advocacy gifts – like here using the term “slip joint” is not only factually correct, but directly undercuts the State’s argument.
- Point 3: Expert cross examinations are much more difficult – do your homework.
- Point 4: Sufficiency of the evidence arguments are hard to win, but on appeal, if you have nothing else, don’t forget to raise it.
- Point 5: Don’t forget common sense – challenge silly factual assertions made the State.