Anthony Sculimbrene, Esq.
City of Akron v. Rasdan
105 Ohio App. 3d 164 (decided June 21, 1995)
City ordinance banning knives violates substantive due process.
The Defendant was driving in the city of Akron, Ohio. He committed a minor traffic violation and was pulled over by the police. During the traffic stop, the officer saw a decorative knife in a box in the front of the car. The knife in the box was not concealed. The officer noted the length of the blade and arrested the Defendant for violating an Akron city ordinance that prohibited knives with a blade length of more than 2.5 inches unless the knife was possessed for work and in circumstances related to the defense of himself or his family. Prior to trial the Defendant challenged the ordinance as being too vague. The trial court agreed and dismissed the charge. The State appealed.
The Court of Appeals considered three separate arguments. First, it considered and rejected a claim that the knife ordinance was vague. The court quickly rejected a few variations of vagueness. The last form, whether the statute infringed on a constitutional right, took more work. Here the court noted that the Ohio equivalent of the Second Amendment was more protective than its federal counterpart, but that the right to bear arms was subject to reasonable regulations and here the ordinance was a reasonable regulation. The Court also rejected a wide variety of overbreadth challenges, noting that they were more suited to a case involving the First Amendment. It is important to note that this case was decided before Heller and that case may have impacted the vagueness/overbreadth analysis.
The Court then detailed the way in which the statute impacted an individual’s substantive due process rights. Generally, there are two kinds of due process: procedural and substantive due process. Procedural due process focuses on the fairness of a process – whether a person is given notice and a fair hearing, for example. Substantive due process is a bit different, finding individual rights in the concept of due process itself. One of those rights is not to be subject to irrational laws. Here the Court found that the ordinance was an irrational law, that is, there was no reasonable connection between the law and the harm it sought to prevent. The Court noted that because the law lacked a criminal intent AND it punished innocent behavior that it was irrational. In fact, as the court noted, the ordinance lacked any reference to any intent whatsoever, making what the law calls a “strict liability” offense. Given the fact that mere possession alone without any intent was all that was required and that historically strict liability criminal offenses have been rare, the ordinance violated the Defendant’s substantive due process rights and his conviction was vacated.
Notes for Knife Owners
This is a highly complex legal argument and as such the case offers little to knife owners. It is, however, an excellent example of the problems relating to traveling with a knife (see more on Traveling with a Knife). As the Court noted there was a potential conflict between the Ohio Weapons Law and the Akron City weapons law meaning that the Defendant was subjected to at least two separate sets of rules governing knife possession and carry.
- Point 1: Be extra careful when traveling with a knife, as both state law and city ordinance could prohibit possession.
Notes for Attorneys
While offering little to knife owners, this case is a treasure trove of legal arguments for lawyers. First, it is important to note that this case was decided before Heller and given the court’s constitutional analysis here, the result could have been very different post Heller. Second, this case is a very good analysis of both vagueness arguments and the related but less used overbreadth argument. The overbreadth argument, that a statute impacts a constitutionally protected right, is much stronger post Heller, but is infrequently made if the reported cases are any indication. This case also shows the scope of a substantive due process argument. This argument is very rarely used because the level of analysis given to the law – the reasonable basis test – is so deferential to the state. Here, the strict liability nature of the law made the analysis closer. That said, a survey of the case law shows that this case is an extreme rarity both in using the substantive due process analysis and in finding a law violates the rational basis test. Nonetheless, this is an argument lawyers should always be mindful of when challenging extremely harsh knife laws.
- Point 1: Whenever older reviewing cases, check to see if Heller would alter their holding.
- Point 2: Make both a vagueness challenge to a law AND an overbreadth argument, which is stronger after Heller.
- Point 3: In the event that a knife law, as written (not as applied in the case of New York laws), is overly harsh or lacks a mental state, prepare a substantive due process argument.