California’s Court of Appeals for the Fourth District reversed the true finding (conviction) of a juvenile for the possession of a switchblade knife after more accurately interpreting the penal code. California Penal Section 17235 (formerly § 653k) prohibits the possession of a switchblade knife, which it defines as “a knife having the appearance of a pocketknife and includes a spring-blade knife, snap-blade knife, gravity knife, or any other similar type knife, the blade or blades of which are two or more inches in length and which can be released automatically by a flick of a button, pressure on the handle, flip of the wrist or other mechanical device, or is released by the weight of the blade or by any type of mechanism whatsoever.” The section goes on, however, to except a knife that “opens with one hand utilizing thumb pressure applied solely to the blade of the knife or a thumb stud attached to the blade, provided that the knife has a detent or other mechanism that provides resistance that must be overcome in opening the blade, or that biases the blade back toward its closed position.”
In this case, a juvenile defendant was stopped by an Anaheim police officer because he matched the description of a graffiti suspect. The defendant denied any involvement in the graffiti, but when he was asked if he had anything illegal, he produced a folding knife from his pocket which had a three inch blade folded in the closed position. The police officer inspected the knife and realized she was able to open the knife with one hand by a “flick of the wrist.” Believing this brought the juvenile’s knife under the definition of a switchblade, she placed him under arrest. The district attorney filed a petition in the juvenile court. At the hearing, the officer demonstrated for the judge how she was able to open the knife with a flick of the wrist. The defense offered testimony from a knife expert who explained that the knife had a detent feature which helped hold it in the closed position, although the detent was not creating as much friction as it should have because of a loose set screw. The judge inspected the knife himself and was able to open the knife by a flip of the wrist. This was enough for the judge to rule the knife was a switchblade, and the defendant suffered a true finding (essentially the same as a conviction in adult court). The defendant appealed.
The Court of Appeals reviewed the evidence offered at the trial, and they considered the legislative intent behind the statute. The Court determined the language of the statute was clear and unambiguous, and therefore the best indicator of legislative intent. They recognized that the knife the defendant in this case possessed fit squarely within the exempting language of the statute. As explained at trial by the knife expert, the knife did have a detent mechanism. It was just not functioning as efficiently as it had been intended to do because of a loose set screw. Even though it was apparently possible to open the knife with one hand after some practice, the manufacturer installed detent exempted this knife from the category of switchblade. The Court of Appeals reversed the juvenile defendant’s true finding.