Anthony Sculimbrene, Esq.
In re: Alicia P
112 Misc.2d 326 (January 27, 1982)
Vague knife laws cannot be enforced against juveniles carrying a knife.
NOTE: This is an old case, but one of the few, if not the only reported case in the country dealing with a juvenile’s right to carry a knife. Before relying on this case check your local laws regarding juvenile cases and whether they can used in adult cases.
This is a juvenile petition that is a criminal case involving a child as defendant. New York State had a pair of knife laws one for adults and one for children. The law that applied to children banned kids from possessing “dangerous” knives. It did not define “dangerous” knives.
A police officer was patrolling a subway station when he saw two teenagers running around. He lost sight of the pair of them and then eventually saw the female. When he took a closer look he noted that she had a wooden handle sticking out of her pants pocket. About a half to a full inch of the handle was showing. He approach the juvenile and asked about the handle. He discovered it was the handle to an unmodified kitchen knife with, as the court put it “an uncentered point.” The blade was wrapped in “dry cleaner’s plastic.”
At trial, the juvenile’s counsel made four arguments, only two of which is of interest here. The juvenile claimed that: 1) the juvenile-specific knife law was vague on its face; and 2) it constituted a violation of equal protection to have two different laws, one for juveniles and one for adults. In a New York juvenile case, the State’s burden of proof is lower – a preponderance of the evidence instead of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Second, in juvenile cases, the question is not whether the juvenile is guilty, but whether they need services. Here, the court stated that even if the vagueness argument had not worked, the juvenile did not need services (that is, even if she was “guilty” she would not have been “punished” to use adult criminal case terms). These procedural differences are common in juvenile cases.
The court found that the statute was far too vague. In particular, the statute failed to define or even describe a dangerous knife and unlike other statutes prohibiting weapons, it lacked an intent to use provision. As the court noted: “In truth, the danger to society arises not from the object held, but the bearer’s intent…” The court engaged in an analysis using knives from other cases, including a comparison of different blade sizes, and found no meaningful way to distinguish dangerous from non-dangerous knives. It ultimately found that the law was vague on its face and that it gave police unlimited discretion in enforcing the law.
The court rejected the claim that the law’s different treatment of juveniles was an equal protection claim. It noted that juveniles are routinely treated differently by the law: driving, marriage, alcohol, and voting to name a few. Nonetheless, because the law was so vague, the court dismissed the petition.
Notes for Knife Owners
There is very little guidance on juveniles and knives in the case law, this being one of the very few cases that talk about knife laws and non-adults. Generally, the ability of a juvenile to carry a knife is much more restricted than that of an adult, as this case makes clear. Courts have a long history of treating juveniles differently and this treatment has always been upheld by higher courts. Simply put – kids have fewer rights than adults do. This also points out the difficulty in determining what juveniles can and can’t carry. In some states there is a separate juvenile code, while in others, the adult code applies. This means a knife owner needs to consult with both sources before letting their children carry. Also, though not mentioned, the age of majority varies from state to state.
- Point 1: Be very careful with the knives you let your kids carry, their rights are more restricted than yours.
- Point 2: You may have to check two sources to determine what is legal – the adult AND the juvenile code.
Notes for Attorneys
This case is a very interesting case not just because it talks about the juvenile law, but also because it makes a series of comprehensive arguments in raising its vagueness challenge. The juvenile’s lawyer covered all of the bases here, challenging the law on its face, as it applies, and as it applies to juveniles. The court’s analysis is also useful, not just in the juvenile arena. It shows how factual differences make it hard to figure out which knives are covered by a particular law and which are not. Finally, the court’s emphasis on intent shows a way out of the legal quagmire of prohibited knives – make the intent, not the object criminal.
- Point 1: Juvenile laws are different and applied differently in weapons cases
- Point 2: Be sure to challenge the law as vague from both a facial challenge (if possible) and an as applied challenge.
- Point 3: Counterfactual examples about prohibited and non-prohibited knives can be helpful to a judge