An electrician for the city Department of Education was handcuffed and briefly jailed for carrying a tool he uses to do his job, the I-Team has learned.
Walt Seager was carrying a folding utility knife when he was arrested two years ago under the gravity knife provision of the state's criminal possession of a weapon law. The law criminalizes carrying any blade that can be deployed with the “the force of gravity or the application of centrifugal force."
The electrician uses the folding knife to strip wire.
"There is no common sense to it. It just seems to be black and white. If you have it you’re guilty," Seager said.
While the criminal case was pending for more than a month, Seager was not allowed to work on school electrical systems. Instead he was suspended with pay, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill.
“I had to be put in what they call the rubber room because you’re arrested, which sounds like I’m carrying a bazooka or a gun," Seager said.
After a judge dismissed the charge and sealed the case, Seager sued New York City for false arrest and won a $10,000 settlement. As part of the payout, the city admitted no wrongdoing.
Seager is not the first electrician to be arrested for carrying a folding utility knife used to strip wire.
Last June, the I-Team revealed how Bernard Perez, an electrician from Brooklyn, was arrested after an NYPD officer pulled him over and found a folding knife in his car. Perez also sued the city, claiming the arresting officer could not open the knife with one hand even though he made “approximately 15 efforts over the course of several minutes.” Perez’s criminal case was dismissed. He was awarded a $57,000 settlement after he sued the city. The city admitted no wrongdoing.
Last week, the New York Assembly passed a bill that would change the definition of a gravity knife so common folding knives would not be considered illegal. A companion bill is waiting for a vote in the New York Senate, but Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Republican, has not indicated whether he will allow it to go to a vote.
Despite the Seager and Perez cases, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance has voiced opposition to the idea of decriminalizing folding knives. Vance’s office has proposed letting the definition of an illegal knife stand, but creating an affirmative defense in court if a criminal defendant happens to be a tradesperson arrested for carrying a folding knife to or from work.
“We disagree with attempts to decriminalize a category of dangerous weapons, particularly at a time when there has been an uptick in slashings citywide,” said Joan Vollero, a spokeswoman for Vance.
The NYPD has been battling a double-digit rise in stabbings and slashings in recent months, but the Manhattan district attorney's office could provide no statistical evidence that folding knives have been used in most of the crimes.
“Certainly there is no evidence of any correlation between violence and common folding knives,” said Martin LaFalce, a public defender with Manhattan’s Legal Aid Society. "That logic would justify arresting chefs for possessing kitchen knives.”
In recent months, the NYPD has reported crimes committed with pocket knives, box cutters, kitchen knives and even a slashing with a screwdriver.