By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Tuesday revived a lawsuit seeking to stop New York City from enforcing a law against carrying certain knives too broadly, and unfairly prosecuting people who carry ordinary pocket knives.
By a 3-0 vote, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York said two individuals and a Greenwich Village retailer could challenge as unconstitutionally vague how Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr and other officials have enforced a state law against gravity knives.
The court also said Knife Rights Inc and Knife Rights Foundation Inc, two nonprofit groups advocating the right to possess knives, lacked standing to sue.
At issue was a 1950s-era state law banning possession of gravity knives, which resemble switchblades and open readily by force of gravity or the application of centrifugal force.
The complaint said New York City, unlike the rest of the state, applied the law to common folding knives if anyone, not just the possessor, could open them with a flick of the wrist.
It said this made it impossible to know which knives were legal, including for people who carry knives for their jobs.
The plaintiffs included the artist John Copeland and art dealer Pedro Perez, who were charged under the state law after being found with common folding knives.
They also included Native Leather Ltd, which in June 2010 was among seven retailers, including Home Depot Inc and Paragon Sports, to enter deferred prosecution agreements with Vance over sales of illegal knives. Deferred prosecution agreements enable parties to avoid criminal charges if they meet specified obligations.
In September 2013, U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest dismissed the lawsuit, saying the plaintiffs lacked standing.
Writing for the appeals court, however, Circuit Judge Reena Raggi said Copeland, Perez and Native Leather showed a "credible threat of prosecution" from continuing to possess their knives.
She pointed to Vance's defense of the "wrist-flick test" to support Copeland's and Perez's arrests, and threat to prosecute Native Leather for violating its deferred prosecution agreement.
In contrast, she said the advocacy groups faced no threat of prosecution.
The appeals court returned the case to Forrest to consider whether the city's enforcement of the law violates the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.
Joan Vollero, a spokeswoman for Vance, said the district attorney "will continue to litigate the remaining portions of the case."
The plaintiffs' lawyer Daniel Schmutter said his clients will press to stop the city from prosecuting "honest individuals and businesses" under the law.
The case is Knife Rights Inc et al v. Vance, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 13-4840.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Grant McCool)