California’s knife laws can be confusing and sometimes inconsistent. If you plan to own or carry certain types of knives, a better understanding of the laws can help you to avoid the aggravation and cost of a weapons charge.
You should keep in mind, however, that carrying a knife or weapon of any kind increases your likelihood of unpleasant encounters with law enforcement. It is not uncommon for law enforcement officers to incorrectly make weapons-related arrests when a law hasn’t been broken; and even if you are able to avoid a conviction, you are still subject to the hassle of missing work and paying any related fees.
If you have been charged with a knife-related crime, a competent attorney who understands the ins and outs of California’s knife laws can asses your case and find the best defense strategy for you.
What types of knives are legal to carry in California?
There are two important factors when it comes to possessing and carrying knives in California: (1) whether the type of knife is legal or restricted and (2) the open carry law. In California, it is legal to buy, own, transport, and carry any knife that is not restricted.
The three most common types of knives — switchblades, folding knives, and fixed blade knives (also known as dirks and daggers) — have certain rules surrounding them and are explained in more detail below. The open carry law states that the hilt or handle of a knife cannot be hidden (or concealed), even by clothing or the knife’s sheath. This law exists as a way to ensure that anyone around the person carrying the knife can clearly see it in order to prevent surprise attacks.
A switchblade (which may be known by many other names including a “pushbutton knife” or “ejector knife”) has a blade which is contained within the handle and is opened automatically by a spring by pushing a button or switch on the handle. Switchblades with blades longer than 2” are illegal to carry in California.
Folding knives are knives that are opened by applying pressure to the blade(s) of the knife and have a mechanism that provides resistance in opening the blade. This includes a “pocketknife” or “Swiss army knife,” box cutter, or “utility knife.” According to California Penal Code Section 17235, all folding knives are legal in the state and may be concealed as long as they are in the folded position. There is also no restriction on the blade length of a folding knife.
Fixed blade knives (dirks and daggers)
A fixed blade knife is one without a folding mechanism. A kitchen knife is a common example. Ice picks and other objects may also be included in this category. In terms of California law, the words “dirk” and “dagger” mean the same thing: a knife that can be readily used as a stabbing weapon. In California, Dirks and daggers and other sheath knives must be carried openly and cannot be concealed.
What types of knives are illegal to carry in California?
In California, certain knives are illegal to carry, particularly if they are misleading or undetectable. In general, knives that are illegal are those which are most commonly used to commit crimes and do not have an obvious use as a tool or look like knives.
Knives that are illegal to possess in California include:
- Cane knives
- Air gauge knives
- Lipstick knives
- Bet buckle knives
- Writing pen knives
- Switchblades with a blade longer than 2”
- Ballistic knives
It is not illegal to carry dirks and daggers as long as they are carried openly. Although they may not be carried in a briefcase, purse, or other container, they may be carried openly in a sheath worn on the waist.
Specific codes and restrictions
In addition to laws pertaining to certain kinds of knives, there are also specific restrictions on carrying knives into public buildings, properties owned by the US government, and schools.
Knives in public buildings – penal code 171b PC
According to Penal Code 171b, certain knives are illegal to have in your possession when you are in a state or local public building. These illegal knives are:
- A fixed blade knife with a blade longer than 4”
- Any knife restricted in the state of California (listed above)
Restrictions on knives in California schools
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Under Penal Code 626.10(a)(1) and (2), it is illegal to have certain knives in your possession on the following California school premises:
- California State University
- University of California
- Any private university
- California Community Colleges
- Any school that instructs grades K-12
Knives that are prohibited on these premises are:
- Dirks and daggers
- Knives with blades longer than 2 ½”
- Folding knives with locking blades
- Ice picks
- Razors with unguarded blades
- Razor blades or box cutters
Possession of any of these restricted knives on the above listed school grounds may result in a misdemeanor or felony charge and 1-3 years in a county jail. Charges and penalties for knife-related crimes are discussed in more detail below.
Switchblades on federal property
Whereas most of the crimes committed in the state of California are punished under California law, crimes committed on federal properties are punished under federal law. The federal switchblade law—15 USC 1241-44—makes it illegal to possess a switchblade on federal lands or properties or to transport a switchblade in interstate commerce. Exceptions to this law are made for active duty members of the armed forces or persons with only one arm carrying a switchblade with a blade that is 3 inches or shorter in length.
California knife laws, offenses, and penalties
Violation of California’s knife carrying laws may result in misdemeanor or felony charges and, if convicted, may result in 1-3 years in a county jail or state prison. If you use a knife as a weapon, you may be sentenced to more jail time in addition to the time served for illegally carrying a knife. Laws and penalties vary depending on the type of knife, whether or not it is restricted, and whether or not it is legal to conceal it.
Concealed dirk and dagger laws
Penal Code 21310 makes it illegal to carry a concealed dirk or dagger, including knives concealed by clothing (e.g. tucked into a waistband). In California, carrying a concealed dirk or dagger is a “wobbler” offense. A wobbler offense is one that the prosecutor can decide to charge as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
Potential penalties for carrying a concealed dirk of dagger include:
- Up to 1 year in county jail and/or up to a $1,000 fine for a misdemeanor
- 16 months to 3 years in county jail and/or up to a $10,000 fine for a felony
Restricted knife laws
Under California Penal Code 21510, possession of a switchblade is a misdemeanor and its penalties are up to 6 months in county jail and/or up to a $1,000 fine. Penalties may vary for the possession of other restricted knives. Some other possible charges and penalties include:
- Possession, sale, manufacture, or import of an undetectable knife: up to 1 year in county jail and/or a fine up to $1,000
- Possession, sale, manufacture, or import of another type of prohibited knife (a wobbler charge): up to 1 year in county jail and/or up to a $1,000 fine for a misdemeanor; 16 months to 3 years in county jail and/or up to a $10,000 fine.
Brandishing a weapon
California Penal Code 417, otherwise known as the “brandishing a weapon” law makes it illegal to brandish a knife in a manner that is threatening, angry, or aggressive, or to brandish a knife during a fight. Brandishing a knife is an additional charge that could be added to other knife-related offenses. A charge of brandishing a weapon could add additional penalties ranging from 30 days in county jail to 3 years in California state prison.
Assault with a deadly weapon
California Penal Code 245(a)(1), otherwise known as the “assault with a deadly weapon” law denotes an offense that may be added to other knife-related offenses. ADW means that an assault was committed with a deadly weapon or some other means of deadly force. Assault with a deadly weapon is a wobbler offense with a maximum sentence of 4 years in California state prison for a felony conviction.
Sentencing enhancement for use of a deadly weapon
Penal Code 12022 PC states that you may receive a sentencing enhancement of 1 year in state prison in addition to the penalty you are sentenced to for illegal possession of a knife. This sentencing enhancement cannot be added to penalties for brandishing a weapon or assault with a deadly weapon.
Legal defenses for knife charges
If you are charged with a violation of California knife laws, there are many possible strategies that your attorney may use in your defense. Some of these strategies include:
- Your knife is not in violation of concealed carry or restriction laws: If the knife that you are carrying does not meet all of the criteria in the definition of that knife, then you cannot be convicted of violating that knife law. For example, the definition of a switchblade specifies that the blade must be at least 2” long. If the blade of your knife is less than 2” long, you cannot be convicted with carrying a switchblade.
- Unknowingly carrying a prohibited knife: In order to secure a conviction of a knife-related charge, the prosecutor must prove that you (1) were aware that you were in possession of the knife and (2) knew that the knife was prohibited. If either of these two factors did not apply to you, you may not be convicted of carrying a restricted knife.
- Open carry: If you are charged with carrying a dirk or dagger but you were lawfully carrying the knife openly, you may not be convicted of carrying a concealed dirk or dagger.
- Illegal search: If a law enforcement officer discovered the knife in your possession as a result of illegal search.
- Police misconduct: If you were arrested or gave a confession as a result of police misconduct.
If you have been charged with violating California knife laws, your best defense is a qualified, competent attorney. California’s knife laws can be confusing and difficult to navigate on your own. As a California defense attorney with over 30 years of experience, I understand the details of California’s knife laws and can develop the best defense strategy for your case. Contact my firm today!