California knife laws break down into 3 categories of devices. These are:
- knives that may be worn openly but not concealed,
- knives that can be carried both openly and concealed, and
- knives that are always illegal to carry.
The first category pertains to “dirks and daggers” that can be used as stabbing weapons. And there is no blade-folding mechanism. Examples of these knives include kitchen knives, ice picks, and any other fixed blade knives. While a person may carry these knives openly in public in a sheath, it is illegal for a party to carry knives concealed on their person.
People in California can carry folding knives (other than switchblades) concealed on their person and freely in the open as long as the knives are in the folded position. And it does not matter how long the blade is. Folding knives include pocketknives, Swiss army knives, box cutters, and other “utility” knives. People open folding knives by putting pressure on the blade, and there is resistance in opening the blade.
Certain knives are completely illegal to possess, manufacture, sell, and import in California. Examples of these types of knives include:
- switchblades, per Penal Code 21510 PC,
- belt-buckle knives, per Penal Code 20410 PC, and
- ballistic knives, per Penal Code 21110 PC.
- custody in county jail for up to three years, and
- a maximum fine of $10,000.
A defendant can raise a legal defense to challenge any alleged violation of a California knife law. Some defenses include the defendant showing that:
- the police conducted an unlawful search or seizure,
- the knife in question was not an illegal knife, or
- the defendant did not know that he had a prohibited knife.
In addition to the above rules, State laws prohibit people from carrying some knives into:
- public buildings, per Penal Code 171b PC,
- schools, per Penal Code 626.10 PC, and
- certain federal property.
Further, California law makes it a crime for a person to:
- “brandish” a knife, per Penal Code 417 PC, and
- use a knife in committing an assault, per Penal Code 245a1.
In this article, our California criminal defense attorneys will answer the following five key questions:
- 1. Can I legally carry a knife in California?
- 2. Are there legal defenses if accused of violating these laws?
- 3. Does California have restrictions on carrying knives in certain places?
- 4. Are there laws in California against using a knife as a weapon?
- 5. What size knife is legal to carry in California?
- 6. Can I carry a Bowie knife in California?
- 7. Can you defend yourself with a pocket knife in California?
- 8. What about legislative and/or constitutional issues?
1. Can I legally carry a knife in California?
There are three general categories of knife laws in California. These involve:
- knives that may be worn openly, but not concealed,
- knives that may be carried openly or concealed, and
- knives that are always illegal to carry in the State.
1.1. Knives that may be worn, but not concealed
This category of laws applies to “dirks” and “daggers.”
Penal Code 21310 PC makes it a crime in California to carry a concealed dirk or dagger.1 The concealed carry of one of these weapons includes:
- tucking it into a waistband or other article of clothing, or
- carrying it in a purse, pocket, briefcase, backpack, or any other container.
California law, though, has an “open-carry” law for these knives. This means that a person may carry a dirk or dagger openly in public provided that:
- the knife is contained within a sheath, and
- the sheath is worn suspended from the person’s waist.2
A “dirk” or “dagger” is:
- any knife or other instrument with or without a handguard,
- that is capable of ready use as a stabbing weapon, and
- may inflict great bodily injury or death.3
Examples of these knives include:
- chef’s knives,
- ice picks,
- fixed blade knives,
- bowie knives,
- knitting needles, and
Carrying a concealed dirk or dagger is a wobbler in California. This means it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
A misdemeanor offense is punishable by:
- custody in county jail for up to one year, and/or
- a maximum fine of $1,000.4
A felony offense is punishable by:
- imprisonment in county jail for 16 months to up to three years, and/or
- a maximum fine of $10,000.5
1.2. Knives that may be carried either openly or concealed
Per Penal Code Section 17235, all folding knives can be carried either openly or as a concealed knife provided that they are in a folded or closed position.6
Permissible folding knives include:
- a pocket knife,
- swiss-army knives
- non-locking folding knives,
- certain utility knives (for example, a snap-blade knife), and
- other similar type knives that are not switchblades (which are illegal in California).7
Many of these knives use a thumb stud that a person must exert thumb pressure on in order to open it.
Note that if a folding knife is extended and locked into position, then:
- it becomes a dirk or dagger, and
- can only be carried openly and in a sheath.
1.3. Knives that are always illegal
California knife laws say that it is always illegal to possess, sell, manufacture, and import certain types of knives. These types of knives include:
- ballistic knives, per Penal Code 21110 PC,
- belt-buckle knives, per Penal Code 20410 PC,
- a lipstick case knife, per Penal Code 20610 PC,
- cane swords/cane knives, per Penal Code 20510 PC,
- shobi-zues, per Penal Code 20710 PC,
- an air gauge knife, per Penal Code 20310 PC,
- writing pen knives, per Penal Code 20910 PC,
- switchblades, a spring-blade knife, spring-loaded knives, and a gravity knife, per California Penal Code 21510 PC (with a blade two inches or longer), and
- undetectable knives (which are made from materials that cannot be detected by metal detectors), per Penal Code 20810 PC.8
The law presumes the above knives to be dangerous weapons.9
Possession of a switchblade knife or undetectable knife is charged as a misdemeanor. The offenses are punishable by:
- custody in county jail for up to six months, and/or
- a maximum fine of $1,000.
The possession, sale, manufacture, or import of any other prohibited knife is a wobbler.
Misdemeanor offenses are punishable by:
- up to one year in county jail, and/or
- a fine of up to $1,000.
Felony offenses are punishable by:
- 16 months to three years in county jail, and/or
- a maximum fine of $10,000.
Finally, the possession, sale, manufacture, or import of an undetectable knife is a misdemeanor offense punishable by:
- up to one year in county jail, and/or
- a fine of up to $1,000.
Note that local municipalities may have their own ordinances regulating knives.
2. Are there legal defenses if accused of violating these laws?
Criminal defense lawyers draw upon certain legal strategies to contest violations of California’s knife laws. Some include showing that:
- law enforcement conducted an unlawful search and seizure.
- the defendant did not have an illegal knife.
- the accused did not know that he had a prohibited knife.
(Another possible defense is that the defendant was lawfully carrying the knife openly, and the police were mistaken about it being concealed.)
2.1. Unlawful search and seizure
Authorities cannot conduct a search for a knife or seize a knife without a valid search warrant. If no warrant, then they must have a legal excuse for not having one. If the police obtain a knife from an unlawful search and seizure – which is a form of police misconduct – then that evidence can get excluded from a criminal case.
- charges could get reduced, or
- a case may get dismissed entirely.
2.2. Knife not illegal
Recall that California state law specifically bans or prohibits a person from possessing, owning, making, or importing certain types of knives. Further, many of these knives have precise legal definitions. This means that, as a defense, an accused can always try to show that the knife he had did not fall into the definition of an illegal knife.
For example, PC 17235 defines a switchblade as:
- a knife with the appearance of a pocketknife,
- with a blade length of 2 or more inches, and
- a knife that can be released by a flick of a button, pressure on the handle, flip of the wrist, or another mechanical device (an automatic knife).
Given this definition, a defendant can avoid a conviction by showing that the blade of the knife he had was only an inch. Or, perhaps the blade length was just under two inches.
Butterfly knives (a.k.a. balisong knives) are considered switchblades in California. Other names for switchblades are ejector knives or pushbutton knives.10
2.3. No knowledge
A prosecutor must prove the following to convict an accused of possessing, selling, or making a prohibited knife:
- the defendant knew he had a prohibited knife, and
- he/she knew the knife had the characteristics of a prohibited knife.11
Given these elements, an accused can avoid guilt by showing that he did not have this requisite knowledge. Perhaps, for example, he bought an illegal shobi-zue from an antique store and had no idea that it was prohibited under the law.
3. Does California have restrictions on carrying knives in certain places?
California law does impose restrictions on carrying knives into some places. These include:
- in public buildings,
- in schools, and
- on certain federal property.
3.1. Knives in public buildings – PC 171b
Penal Code 171b is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to bring or possess certain knives into:
- any state or local public building, or
- a meeting required to be open to the public.12
Prohibited knives under this statute include:
- any knife with a blade over four (4) inches and one that has a fixed blade (or one that can be fixed), or
- any knife prohibited to possess under the law.13
A violation of this law is a wobbler offense that can lead to up to three years in state prison.
3.2. Knives in schools and on school grounds – PC 626.10a1
Under Penal Code 626.10a1, it is a California wobbler offense to bring or possess certain knives on the grounds of:
- any K-12 public or private school,
- California community colleges,
- The University of California,
- California State University,
- any private university, and
- certain state colleges.14
The prohibited knives include:
- dirks or daggers,
- knives with blades longer than 2 ½”,
- a folding knife with a fixed blade that can lock into place (“locking blade”),
- ice picks, or
- a razor blade with an unguarded blade.15
Violations of this law can result in imprisonment in state prison for up to three years.
Additionally, Penal Code 626.10a2 makes it a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in county jail, to bring or possess on the grounds of a K-12 school:
- a razor blade, or
- a box cutter.16
3.3. Switchblades on federal property – 15 USC 1241-44
15 USC 1241-44 are the federal laws that make it a crime for a person to either:
- introduce or transport a switchblade in interstate commerce,17 or
- possess a switchblade on federal or Indian lands, or lands subject to federal jurisdiction.18
As to the illegal possession of a switchblade, this law does not apply to members of the armed forces that are acting in the performance of their duties. It also does not apply to people with only one arm if the switchblade’s blade is three inches or less in length.19
A violation of these laws could lead to up to five years in jail.
4. Are there laws in California against using a knife as a weapon?
There are three main laws that make it a crime for a person to use a knife as a weapon. These are:
- brandishing a weapon – PC 417,
- assault with a deadly weapon – PC 245a1, and
- use of a dangerous weapon – PC 12022.
4.1. Brandishing a weapon – PC 417
Penal Code 417 is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to “brandish” a knife.20
“Brandish” means to wave a knife in a:
- angry, or
- threatening manner.
A violation of this statute is typically charged as a misdemeanor and can be punished by 30 days to up to one year of county jail time. In certain cases, brandishing can carry up to three years in jail.
4.2. Assault with a deadly weapon – PC 245a1
Penal Code 245a1 is the California statute that makes an “assault with a deadly weapon,” or “ADW,” a crime.
Under the law, an ADW is defined as an assault committed with either:
- a deadly weapon, or
- other means of force likely to cause great bodily injury to another person.21
California law says that a knife can definitely fall into the category of a “deadly weapon.” An ADW, then, includes when a person commits an assault while using a knife.
A violation of this law can lead to felony charges and a penalty of up to four years in state prison.22
4.3. Sentencing enhancement for personal use of a dangerous weapon – PC 12022
Penal Code 12022 is the California statute that imposes certain sentencing enhancements when a felon uses a deadly weapon in the commission of a felony.
The law says a defendant will face enhanced prison time for felony crimes, if during the commission of the crime, either:
- the defendant was armed with a firearm, or
- the defendant used a dangerous or deadly weapon.
As stated above, a knife can definitely fall into the category of a deadly weapon. Under PC 12022, then, a person can receive extra prison time if he/she:
- committed a felony, and
- used a knife in the commission of that offense.
The basic enhancement, per this statute, is an additional one year in prison. But this sentencing enhancement cannot enhance the penalties for brandishing a weapon or for assault with a deadly weapon.23
This time period is in addition and consecutive to the punishment that the accused receives for the underlying felony offense.
5. What size knife is legal to carry in California?
In California, switchblades with blades of two inches or longer are illegal. Fixed-blade knives with blades of two-and-a-half inches or longer are illegal on college/university/school premises. And any knife with a blade longer than four inches is illegal in a public building.
Otherwise, California law has no laws regulating the maximum lengths of knives. However, certain localities do: In Los Angeles for example, people cannot openly carry knives with blades longer than three inches.
As discussed above, it is unlawful to carry concealed dirks or daggers. It is also illegal to possess disguised blades.24
6. Can I carry a Bowie knife in California?
People can openly carry a Bowie knife in California, but they cannot conceal carry a Bowie knife. Concealed carry of a Bowie knife is wobbler, which means it can be a misdemeanor or a felony. The maximum penalty is three years in prison.25
7. Can you defend yourself with a pocket knife in California?
It is legal in California for people to carry folding knives – such as a pocket knife – in the folded position. And it is legal for people to defend themselves with a pocket knife as long as they act reasonably.
California law permits the use of force in self-defense or defense of others when the victim reasonably believes he/she or others are in imminent danger of physical harm, and that force is required to deflect the danger. Victims may only use the degree of force reasonably necessary under the circumstances. In some cases, merely brandishing a knife – and not using it to stab – would be sufficient to deflect the force. 26
8. What about legislative and/or constitutional issues?
There have been some legislative and constitutional issues over the years with both:
- dirks and daggers, and
- protecting the public from the risk of stabbings or surprise attacks, and
- preserving the “innocent” carrying of legal instruments like steak knives, hunting and fishing knives, scissors, and metal knitting needles.
8.1. Issues regarding dirks and daggers
Balancing the above two goals has been challenging over the years with dirks and daggers.
Up until 1994, the law made it a crime for a person to carry a concealed dirk and dagger. However, the State never defined those terms.
This failure led to courts using the following definition:
- any straight knife,
- worn on the person, and
- which is capable of inflicting death.
The problem here is that the definition is broad and limits the government to accomplish the second goal mentioned above.
Courts struggled with providing a clear definition of dirks and daggers over the next two years.27
The legislature then provided a definition in 1996, which is the same definition used today.
The Legislature recognized that the new definition might criminalize the “innocent” carrying of legal instruments such as steak knives, scissors, and metal knitting needles. But it concluded that “there is no need to carry such items concealed in public.”28
Some constitutional challenges arose after the legislature adopted its definition, but California courts have ruled that PC 21310:
- does not violate the Second Amendment right to bear arms,29
- is narrowly tailored to the legitimate interest of preventing surprise attacks and is not overly broad,30 and
- does not burden the right to bear arms in self-defense.31
8.2. Issues regarding switchblades
As with dirks and daggers, concern over the years with switchblades is that the definition of these objects is:
- too general, and
- prohibits other knives that are used for peaceful purposes.
Up until 1957, it was illegal to possess, sell, or transfer any switchblade, or a knife with a blade of over two inches.32
In subsequent years, the legislature amended the law so that a switchblade included:
- a gravity knife, and
- a knife that could be opened with a “flip of the wrist” or “the weight of the blade.”33
Courts broadened the definition more and concerns began to arise that the statute prohibiting these knives was overly broad.34
The legislature acted in 2012 and adopted Penal Codes 16965, 17235, and 21510, which were meant to replace PC 635k, or the former switchblade statute.
There have been no serious constitutional challenges made to Penal Code 21510 since its enactment.
For additional help…
For additional guidance or to discuss your case with a criminal defense attorney, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group. Our firm provides trusted legal advice and serves clients throughout the state of California, including those in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas.
For information on knife laws in Nevada and Colorado, please see our articles on:
- “Nevada Knife Laws Explained by Las Vegas Criminal Defense Attorneys,” and
- “Knife Laws in Colorado.”
- California Penal Code 21310 PC.
- California Penal Code 20200 PC. See also In re: Luke W (2001) 88 Cal. App. 4th 650. See also CALCRIM No. 2501.
- California Penal Code 16470 PC.
- California Penal Code 21310 PC.
- See same. See also California Penal Code 1170h PC.
- California Penal Code 17235 PC.
- California Penal Codes 17235 PC and 21510 PC. See also People v. Castillolopez (2016) 3 Cal. 4th 322.
- See also California Penal Code 16590 PC, which is California’s statute on generally prohibited weapons.
- See same.
- California Penal Code 17235 PC; see also People ex rel. Mautner v. Quattrone, (1989) 211 Cal. App. 3d 1389. See also In re: Gilbert R. (2012) 211 Cal. App. 4th 514.
- See, for example, CALCRIM No. 2502 – Possession, etc., of Switchblade Knife. Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (2017 edition).
- California Penal Code 171b PC.
- See same.
- California Penal Code 626.10a1 PC.
- Penal Code 626.10b PC.
- California Penal Code 626.10a2 PC. See also State v Hester, (2020) 58 Cal.App.5th 630.
- 15 USC 1242.
- 15 USC 1243.
- 15 USC 1244.
- California Penal Code 417 PC.
- California Penal Code 245a1.
- California Penal Code 245a1.
- California Penal Code 12022 PC.
- See notes 2 to 9. Los Angeles City Code § 55.10.
- See notes 4 to 5.
- See notes 7. CALCRIM 3470.
- See, for example, People v. Mitchell (2012) 209 Cal.App.4th 1364. See also People v. Bermudez (2020) 45 Cal. App. 5th 358. See, for example, People v. Rubalcava, (2000) 23 Cal.4th 322. See, for example, People v. Gonzales (1995) 32 Cal.App.4th 229.
- See Sen. Com. on Criminal Procedure, Analysis of Assem. Bill. No. 1222 (1995-1996 Reg. Sess.) as amended May 31, 1995, pp. 3, 5-6.
- See, for example, People v. Mitchell (2012) 209 Cal.App.4th 1364.
- See same. See also People v. Trujillo, 15 Cal. App. 5th 574.
- See same.
- See Assem. Amend. Bill No. 202 (1957 Reg. Sess.) March 13, 1957, Assem. Amend. Bill No. 202 (1957 Reg. Sess.) March 18, 1957, and 58Stats.1957, ch. 355, § 1, p. 999.
- Stats.1959, ch. 355, § 1, p. 2278.
- See, for example, People ex rel. Mautner v. Quattrone (1989), 211 Cal.App.3d 1389