Anthony Sculimbrene, Esq.
Rainer v. State
763 S.W.2d 615 (Tex. 1989)
The blade length restriction in Texas law references the cutting portion of the knife, not the sharpened edge.
NOTE: This case was decided before 2017 complete overhaul of Texas knife laws, but it is still instructive on the issue of blade length. The blade length restriction applies in many fewer circumstances than it did before. For more on the effect of this overhaul, see here, the Texas Knife Laws page on AKTI.org.
The Defendant was wanted on a bench warrant. The police found him at a bar, entered the bar, pat frisked him, and arrested him. During the pat frisk they discovered a “large hunting knife.” The knife had a blade that was more than 5.5 inches long, the size limit set forth in Texas law. He was charged with possession of an unlawful knife.
At trial the Defendant made one argument in his defense. He claimed that the knife was not illegal because while the blade, or non-handle, portion of the knife was longer than 5.5 inches, the actual sharpened edge was under 5.5 inches. There was no dispute that this is the case. Texas law defines “knife,” and restricts carry of knives with blades 5.5 inches or greater, but it does not define “blade.” Furthermore, a general statute that applies to all laws in Texas requires courts to give words their everyday meaning if they are not specifically defined by statute. The Defendant then pointed to the Merriam Webster Dictionary that defined blade as “the cutting part of an implement.” As such, the Defendant claimed that the sharpened edge was only part of the knife that was capable of cutting and therefore the knife was legal.
The court rejected this argument. It noted that the dictionary definition distinguishes “blade” from the non-cutting portion of the knife, namely the handle. The definition does not reference the sharpened part of the knife. As such, reasonable finders of fact could have found that the knife was illegal as exceeding the blade length restriction.
Notes for Knife Owners
This was a very clever argument on the part of the Defendant, but it was only necessary because he carried a knife that was, even in according to his own argument, too close to the legal limit. Obviously he also shouldn’t have been carrying knife while subject to a bench warrant nor should he have carried a knife in a bar, which, even after the 2017 overhaul is still a restricted location for people of a certain age.
- Point 1: Find the length restriction in your state and the carry knives clearly under that restriction, regardless of how the blade length is measured; no need to get close to the limit, you never know how the police will measure the “blade.”
- Point 2: There are certain circumstances and places where you should think carefully about carrying a knife.
Notes for Attorneys
This seemed like an exceptionally close case. Both arguments were plausible, but the standard of review, “unsustainable exercise of discretion” or the “reasonable fact finder,” is very deferential to the verdict of the lower court. This issue is close enough that it could have gone either way in the lower court and the appeals court would have likely affirmed the ruling either way. The outcome of this case is not based on the strength of the argument, but on the standard of review on appeal. That said, Rainer, even after the 2017 overhaul, would still good law in terms of blade length restrictions.
One point here that does not seemed to be addressed by either court was the pat frisk of the Defendant. The opinion simply states that the Defendant was pat frisked. Under Terry v. Ohio and its progeny, a pat frisk is only lawful if the person is suspected to be both armed and presently dangerous. This is a two-part test. Armed people cannot be pat frisked. Dangerous people cannot be pat frisked. Pat frisks are only legal when the person is both. In this case, the Defendant was sitting at a bar and while he was technically on the lamb, it is not clear if there any reason to believe he was either armed or presently dangerous. It is not clear from the appellate record if the pat frisk was challenged at the trial level, but it absolutely should have been. The state would have likely claimed that the pat frisk was part of the arrest on the warrant, but from the facts in the case, that is not clear. Unlike the blade length argument, which was a close call, based on the facts contained in the opinion, the pat frisk issue was stronger for the defense. Search and seizure case law is often the best defense to knife-related charges, as these technical arguments about statutory interpretation have a burden of proof that favors the State, whereas the burden of proof in search and seizure arguments is, in some locations, more favorable to the defendant.
- Point 1: Remember that standards of review on appeals are always deferential to the trial court
- Point 2: Most knife charges are some variant of possession of contraband. As such, don’t forget to litigate search and seizure issues, as they are usually the best defense to possession charges and in some locations they have a better standard of review on appeal for the defendant.