Bikers always seem to inquire about knife laws in California.  After researching the law, we certainly understood why confusion exists as to what is legal to carry and what isn’t: there are over a dozen statutes on the subject, as well as numerous municipal codes, and inconsistent court decisions that further muddy the water.  Hopefully, this article will shed some light on the rules and inconsistencies in California knife laws.

A few caveats, however:  First, remember that carrying any weapon, even one that’s legal, can cause you a lot of grief with law enforcement.  Cops routinely write tickets and make arrests for things they incorrectly think is illegal.  Being found “not guilty” will not make up for the time and aggravation of getting arrested and missing work — not to mention the cost of hiring an attorney.  Also, this article only covers California law.  State laws can vary greatly, and taking a knife that is legal in California over state lines may get you into trouble with federal laws or laws of other states.  Local ordinances may also impact the legality of your knife.

With those warnings out of the way, California laws covering switchblades, daggers, and disguised blades are discussed below.  For those of you with a short attention span, here is the summary:  

In California, the following are illegal:  (1) Any knife with a blade of 2″ or longer, that can be opened with a button or the flick of your wrist; (2) concealed possession of any “dirk” or “dagger,” i.e., any stabbing device with a fixed blade, regardless of blade length; (3) possession or sale of any disguised blades, i.e., cane swords, writing pen knives, lipstick knives, etc., or any knife that is undetectable to metal detectors; (4) possession of a knife with a blade longer than 2 1/2″ on any school grounds; (5) possession of a fixed-blade knife with a blade longer than 2 1/2″ on any college or university grounds; and (6) flashing or waiving any knife or weapon in a threatening manner.  Also, certain municipalities have their own laws that may affect the legality of carrying a knife.  In Los Angeles, for example, it’s illegal to openly carry any knife with a blade longer than 3″.  

Each of the above issues is discusses in greater detail below.

Switchblades  – Penal Code § 653k

Switchblades and other spring-loaded knives are generally illegal in California. Included in the legal definition of switchblade is “[any] 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 statute expressly excludes pocket knives that can be opened with one hand by pushing the blade open with one’s thumb, as long as 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.”

The statute further states that it is unlawful to : (1) to possess a switchblade in a vehicle, (2) to carry a switchblade anywhere upon one’s person, or (3) to transfer or attempt to sell a switchblade to another person. In the 2009 case of People v. S.C., the Court of Appeals held that possession of a switchblade in a person’s pocket, boot, etc., is unlawful, even if even if in one’s own home.  In other words, it’s illegal to have a switchblade with a 2″ or longer blade – period.

It should also be noted that a pocketknife that was legal when manufactured, but is broken or modified so that it will open freely, is a switchblade within the meaning of the statute. For example, in the 2008 case of People v. Angel R., the Court of Appeals examined a conviction over a pocketknife that, as originally manufactured, had a hole in the back of the blade that prevented it from flicking open. The trial court found, however, that the knife had been modified or damaged, and the resistance mechanism did not function so that the knife would open with a flick of the wrist.  Despite the original design of the knife, the Court of Appeals upheld the conviction.
Concealed Knives, Dirks, and Daggers – Penal Code § 12020

In California, it is illegal for any person to carry concealed, certain knives, legally described as “dirks” and “daggers,” i.e., any fixed-blade knife or stabbing weapon.  Pursuant to the statute, it is illegal to carry concealed upon one’s person any fixed-blade knife.  This does not include a legal (non-switchblade) pocketknife, as long as that knife is closed.  Carrying a knife in an openly-worn sheath is not concealment within the meaning of the statute.  As discussed below, however, this law may be impacted by local ordinances.

Cane Swords and other Disguised Blades – Penal Code § 20200 et seq

Any knife or blade that is disguised so as to not look like a weapon is also illegal in California.  This includes, cane swords, belt-buckle knives, lipstick case knives, air gauge knives, writing pen knives, etc.  Blades that are undetectable to metal detectors (e.g., ceramic blades) are also illegal.

Possession of Knives on School Grounds – Penal Code § 626.10

It is illegal for any person to bring or possess “any dirk, dagger, ice pick, knife having a blade longer than 2 1/2 inches, folding knife with a blade that locks into place, [or] razor with an unguarded blade . . . upon the grounds of, or within, any public or private school providing instruction in kindergarten or any of grades 1 to 12 . . .”  The law with regard to college campuses is similar, but less restrictive.  Subsection (b) of the statute provides that it is illegal for any person to bring or possess “any dirk, dagger, ice pick, or knife having a fixed blade longer than 2 1/2 inches upon the grounds of, or within, any [college or university].”

Brandishing Knives – Penal Code § 417

In California, it is illegal to brandish any deadly weapon, including knives.  The law states that it is unlawful for any person to “draw or exhibit any deadly weapon . . . in a rude, angry, or threatening manner, or . . . to unlawfully use a deadly weapon.”  This does not include use of such a weapon in self defense.

Local Ordinances – Here’s Where the Law Gets Messy

If the laws above seem confusing, as the saying goes, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”  Local ordinances vary from city to city, and county to county.  Worse, California courts have been inconsistent in ruling on the enforceability of these local laws.

For example, in the City of Los Angeles, it is illegal to publicly carry, in plain view, any knife, dirk or dagger having a blade 3″ or more in length, any ice pick or similar sharp tool, any straight-edge razor or any razor blade fitted to a handle.  (There are certain exceptions, such as where the knife is for use in a “lawful occupation, for lawful recreational purposes, or as a recognized religious practice.”) The County of Los Angeles has a similar rule, which makes it illegal to openly carry, in public, “any knife having a blade of three inches or more in length; any spring-blade, switch-blade or snap-blade knife; any knife any blade of which is automatically released by a spring mechanism or other mechanical device; any ice pick or similar sharp stabbing tool; any straight-edge razor or any razor blade fitted to a handle.”  In other words, it is illegal in Los Angeles County to openly carry any knife with a blade of 3″ or longer.  

It gets worse.  Los Angeles Code section 55.01 also makes it illegal to carry any weapon concealed on one’s person.  As such, in Los Angeles, you can’t openly carry a blade over 3″, but you can’t carry such a weapon concealed, either.

Interestingly, the Courts have held that the Los Angeles law forbidding carrying a concealed weapon is invalid.  In the 1968 case of People v. Bass, a man was arrested and charged with carrying a concealed folding knife.  The Court of Appeals overturned the conviction, holding that the Los Angeles law conflicted with the state law, and was therefore invalid.  Nonetheless, the Los Angeles law is still on the books.

What is even more interesting is that other, more recent cases completely contradict the decision in People v. Bass.  In the 1985 case of People v. Gerardoi, the defendant was charged with violating a local law of the City of Commerce that is nearly identical to the Los Angeles local law prohibiting carrying blades over 3″.  On appeal, the defendant cited the Bass case, arguing that the city code was invalid.  The Gerardoi court rejected the holding of Bass, and found that the city code was valid.

Where does all this information leave us?  The short answer is, in a mess.  There are certainly things that are illegal: any switchblade with a blade 2″ or longer, or concealed possession of any knife with a fixed blade.  Other knives may or may not be legal, depending on how and where you carry them, and where you are in California.  The best this to do is to check local ordinances before deciding to carry a knife or any other weapon in California.  Better yet, think twice before carrying a knife.  As you know, some cops look for any excuse to hassle bikers.

This article is written for informational purposes only and is not to be construed as legal advice.