Here’s your Boy Scout knife, and here are the handcuffs

CODA

GREG BEAN

There’s an episode of my old favorite television show “MacGyver,” where a small-town cop arrests MacGyver for carrying his Swiss Army knife. The cop is just throwing his weight around, and he charges our hero with carrying a concealed weapon or something equally as bogus, puts him in handcuffs and hauls him off to the pokey.

The audience knows right away that the cop is a loser, because Mac always carries a Swiss Army knife, always for good, and he uses it for everything from opening a can of beans to deactivating a nuclear bomb (OK, OK, I know he did that with a tennis racquet, but you get my point). The makers of the show trusted fans to be outraged by Mac’s treatment, and just assumed they would know that would never happen in America, unless the cops had nefarious intent.

Well, I’m here to tell that if MacGyver came to New Jersey today, got stopped at one of those “random” DUI checkpoints — like one last month in Deal — and the cops found that knife in his pocket, there’s a darned good chance he’d not only be taken to jail, he’d also possibly be charged with a felony that could land him in prison, or (if he’s “lucky”) get his case bargained down to a disorderly persons misdemeanor that could cost him nearly a thousand dollars. It would all depend on which side of the bed the prosecutor and judge got up on that morning, how badly the small town needed the money from their legalized municipal shakedown, and whether they thought the reprobate before them would hire a lawyer and fight, or pay their incredibly high fine and dummy up, just to put the whole sordid experience behind him, or her. Usually, they pay the fine and go away grumbling.

Think I’m making that up? Sadly, I’m not. And as a guy who has carried a pocketknife every day since he got his coveted Webelos badge in Cub Scouts at age 9, that gets my dander up. Turns out that every time I hop in the car and drive down to pick up a prescription or drop off the dry cleaning, I risk winding up on a hard bench with all the drunks and bail jumpers and meth addicts.

The fact is that the laws about carrying a pocketknife in New Jersey are so vague that they defy reason. The section in the state Code of Criminal Justice that talks about knives is brief and open to interpretation. While outlawing some knives outright — like gravity knives, switchblades, daggers and stilettos — the law never specifies what is legal.

It says that a person under 18 can’t own a knife with a blade longer than 5 inches, and it says that the law can’t be used to prevent a person from transporting a knife for the purpose of hunting or fishing. But it also says that any person carrying a knife for “unlawful” purposes is guilty of a crime in the third degree.

And there’s the rub. What is a lawful and explainable purpose in New Jersey? Nobody knows.

Common sense would dictate that a guy coming home from a place where he’s been using his pocketknife all day in a construction project is not carrying it for an unlawful purpose, and he might eventually win that argument in court. But if the cop, the prosecutor and the judge don’t want to hear his explanation, it’s likely to take a court hearing, a fine, legal fees and maybe even some quality time in jail before it’s all sorted out.

That’s what happened to a number of folks I’ve spoken to over the years, and that’s what happened to a young man I spoke with who didn’t want to be identified, but was arrested for carrying a pocketknife in a small Shore town last month. He wound up paying an $800 fine, in spite of the fact that the arresting officer turned up on court day to help him plead his case and assure the authorities he hadn’t caused any trouble.

The young man told me he had asked nearly everyone for some clarification about what he’d done wrong, and what constituted a legal knife, but he couldn’t get an answer from the cop, the prosecutor or the judge.

So I tried by calling a judge and a couple cops of my acquaintance, and got the same unsatisfactory response. They confirmed what I suspected, and here’s what they said: Because the state statutes are so vague, law enforcement can do just about whatever it wants, from taking the common-sense approach and letting the poor sod go, to incarceration, to astronomical fines, no matter how arbitrary and capricious their actions appear.

“At the end of the day,” one said, “you’re probably better off not carrying a pocketknife at all,” unless “someone puts some heat on the state lawmakers to modify the criminal code to specify what size pocketknives are legal, tell us how big is too big and whether they can be carried for everyday use.”

So how about it, folks? You guys in Trenton got a little free time? I’m not talking about legalizing machetes or Bowie knives here, but I would like a little clarification and direction. Four-inch blades? Five-inch blades? No blades of any size? It doesn’t really matter as long as everyone’s clear on the rules.

I don’t want to be a criminal, but I’d like to carry my Swiss Army knife since I use it several times a day, and never know when I’ll have to open an envelope, drive a screw, or cut a trapped family from a flaming vehicle. Hey, it could happen. Stuff like that happened to MacGyver all the time.

And if it does, I’d like my unbroken record as a nonfelon to depend on something a little more substantive and less arbitrary than whether the arresting officer, or the prosecutor making bank on the latest municipal revenue-enhancing shakedown, is having a bad reaction to the oatmeal and orange juice he had for breakfast.

Gregory Bean is the former executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at gbean@gmnews.com.