Disclaimer - I am not a lawyer. The following information is for reference only. The discussion and interpretation is my own. So, please keep that in mind. If you need qualified consultation or legal advice, please contact a licensed criminal attorney and/or local Sheriff's office. The discussion is regarding the lawful knife carry, nothing else!
Like I said above, the laws are complicated. In US to make things more complicated we have Federal and State laws, and in addition to that local counties and cities can have their own laws. Which particular law takes priority for any given issue depends on the laws and I guess particular case as well. In relation to knife carry, the state law is generally more or less universal, however, particular cities and towns have their own, as usual more strict laws regarding the knife possession and carry. I'll discuss that below, but as a rule of thumb, just because California state law allows particular blade doesn't mean it is legal in all places. Always check your local town/city penal code. E.g. San Francisco and Oakland have 3" blade length limit, which isn't in the state law. Same is true for Los Angeles.
One more thing to keep in mind is that not all the law enforcement officers know penal code all that well. For starters, if you get asked whether or not you have a knife on you, tell the truth, but better yet, state that you have a blade legal under California law. You may get some problems, because the officer thinks you have violated the law. In other words, LEO doesn't know the knife carry law in details. In that case, better not to argue the point, calmly explain they you believe you're not in violation of the law, that your knife is legal under California law, including citing penal codes we're discussing here and either ask the officer to contact superiors or get the receipt if he/she is confiscating the knife and later contact the department. Aggravating the situation will most likely result in additional charges against you and possible arrest. However, if your piece gets confiscated you must be issued a receipt. If the officer is refusing to do so(i.e. issue a receipt) or threatening with additional problems he's in the wrong, not you. Without confrontation, ask for the receipt and if he(or she) still refuses, write down his/her badge number, name, time and place where the incident took place and report it to the nearest police station. For more details on dealing with law enforcement and various situations involving knives including their use please visit Jim March's excellent article California Knife Laws: A Comprehensive Guide.
Knife Carry Related Laws 2012 revisions- In 2012 California state legislature revised penal code. In short, no major changes to the knife carry laws, however the numbers to the existing penal codes have been changed completely. California penal code has several sections interesting to us in this discussion: sections 16100-17360 (formerly 653K), and pretty much everything under Part 6/Title 3/Division 5 (all formerly under 12020). Basically many types of knives got their own sections in definition and carry law parts. Sections 171.b and 626.10 remain unchanged.
- 16100-17360 - Since 2012, belongs to the Part 6 - Control Of Deadly Weapons, Title 1 - General Provisions, Division 2 - Definitions; Old 653K is completely removed.
- Chapter 6 of PC - Since 2012 covers Deadly Weapons, where Title 3 covers - Weapons And Devices Other Than Firearms, and the parts we're specifically interested in are under Division 5 - Knives And Similar Weapons, which in turn contains several chapters, including dedicated articles to several types of knives under Chapter 2 - Disguised Or Misleading Appearance;
Penal code Part 6/Title 3/Division 5- Defines what is a legal pocket knife and what is illegal, by types, e.g. a switchblade and gravity or ballisong knife(PC 17235). Pocket knives, most likely those would be the folding knives are legal, while switchblades, gravity and ballisong knives are illegal.
PC 16470- Deals with the street carry laws. Basically, you can not carry a dirk or a dagger, definitions below, and more importantly, can't carry folding knife in open/locked position - ...only if the blade of the knife is exposed and locked into position. Therefore folders, carried closed and concealed are legal. No length limitation.
PC 21510- deals strictly with switchblades, making it a misdemeanor to carry upon a person, or possess in a car, or in a public place, sell, loan, transfer, give, expose for sale, a switchblade knife.
There are other penal codes dealing with knife carry in specific places. Those are: penal code 626.10 which deals with the knife school carry rules. There is also penal code 171.b which deals with the knives in public buildings.
Simply put, the law defines what is illegal, so if your knife and carry isn't what the law defines as illegal you should be fine. Once again, keep in mind the local laws. Details below.
Very Short Summary
State California allows for concealed carry of the folding knives and there is no limit to the blade length. As long as the knife is not banned by PC 16100-17360 or in Part 6/Title 3/Division 5, it is legal. Division 6 of the same title bans knuckles, division 7 bans nunchakus and so on. 17235 does not make Assisted Openers(AO) illegal. However, depending on the particular AO mechanism and other details some AOs may fall under switchblade category. Kershaw Speed Safe is not one of them, it is perfectly legal, details further down. As far as the state law goes, fixed blades must be carried openly, in the sheath, on the waist. I can't find where does the law ban either double edged blades or dirks and daggers. As the wording is, those are ok for open carry. No knives longer than 2.5"in the school, but folders are ok in the Universities and Colleges, unless, they were banned by local authorities. CCR(California Code Of Regulations) has a separate provision prohibitins any non employee and non student from carying any knife with a locking blade, dirks, daggers etc, and anything that can be used to inflict serious bodily injury. Needless to say it's way too vague, although if you had aforementioned dangerous object on you to do your lawful work, then you're ok. No knives longer than 4" in public buildings or buildings open to public meetings, e.g. courts, city halls, police stations, city council meetings, etc.
PC 20200- Defines open carry as A knife carried in a sheath that is worn openly suspended from the waist of the wearer is not concealed within the meaning of Section 16140, 16340, 17350, or 21310. The handle shouldn't be covered by clothing.
Part 6/Title 3/Division 5- Defines legal and illegal pocket knives. Full text of the penal code 17235. The most interesting part of the penal code is the following definition of the switchblade knives:
As used in this part, "switchblade knife" means 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.
Basically, this section outlaws switchblades, or automatic knives, plus ballisongs, or butterfly knives. Also whatever else can be opened with the flick of the wrist. However, there are lots of legitimate knives that also fall under that category. Next section clarifies that part:
"Switchblade knife" does not include 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.
The paragraph above was added to the PC 17235 (to the original 653K) thanks to SB 274, or Karnette amendment(California state Senator Betty Karnette of the 27th district introduced it in 2002). This is an important clause that makes legal regular folding knives which can be opened with one hand. The knife must have some sort of thumbstud to move the blade into the open position and has to have some sort of mechanism to keep it in the closed position and provide some sort of resistance to overcome when opening it. For the record, a thumbstud doesn't necessarily has to be affixed to the side(s) of the blade, but can be on the top like on Kershaw Shallots.
Kershaw Speed Safe AO - The Karnette amendment is also what makes Kershaw Speed Safe assisted opening knives perfectly legal in California. Speed Safe satisfies 3 conditions instead of minimum two, not to be a switchblade, i.e. it has a thumbstud on the blade, which the knife operator has to push to open the knife, second Kershaw AOs have a detent, and just those two would be enough to comply switchblade law, but the torsion bar of the Speed Safe mechanism also forces the blade to stay in closed position, i.e. provides bias towards locked position.
Blade Length Limit - As you can see there is no length limit ever mentioned in this code. So, normally unless there is a specific law restricting the blade length in any given local area, you can carry folding knives of pretty much any length, not outlawed in 16100-17360 or in Part 6/Title 3/Division 5.
Part 6/Title 3/Division 5- Deals with knife carry and prohibits several types of knives. It is way too long to cite it here completely, thus only the most relevant parts here. For The reference - full text of the penal code Part 6, Title 3.
General - Division 5 and subsequent divisions outlaw several types of knives and other weapons/devices. Violating any of the rules carries out the same punishment: is punishable by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year or in the state prison.. I.e. same penalty for Lipstick, Undetectable, Belt buckle knives, etc.
Division 5 of Title 3 of Part 6 prohibits and bans several different types of knives, before 2012 they were all in the same section(12020), listed by name:
Old version in section 12020, pre 2012 - (1) Manufactures or causes to be manufactured, imports into the state, keeps for sale, or offers or exposes for sale, or who gives, lends, or possesses ... any ballistic knife, ... any belt buckle knife, any lipstick case knife, any cane sword, any shobi-zue, any air gauge knife, any writing pen knife, ...
After 2012 each type listed above got its own article under Division 5, including 1 year prison punishment.
So, not only you can't carry, but you can't even posses any of the listed in above. Some of it makes sense, some not so much. The section 22210 bans slungshots, but slingshots are ok. Half of those things are most likely unknown to general public and probably knife enthusiastas as well. For your information, Shurikens are also included in Division 9 of the Title 3, section 22410-22490. They are not exactly knives, but still edged weapons. Ok, moving on.
PC 21310- any person in this state who carries concealed upon the person any dirk or dagger is punishable by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year or in the state prison - We'll go through definitions later, but this one says no to concealed dirks and daggers. By the way as this one is, it doesn't prohibit them, just states they have to be carried openly, on the waist as we saw open carry definition. Sad part is that dirk (and dagger) definition in the law, see Dirk Or Dagger in PC 16100-17360 definitions, covers pretty much anything, because ready use as a stabbing weapon that may inflict great bodily injury or death applies to the screwdrives and pens just as well. And those things do get used in crimes as a stabbing weapon.
171.b- Tells you what you can and can not carry in public buildings and meetings. For the reference - Full Text Of Penal Code 171. 171.b starts with:
(a) Any person who brings or possesses within any state or local public building or at any meeting required to be open to the public pursuant to Chapter 9 (commencing with Section 54950) of Part 1 of Division 2 of Title 5 of, or Article 9 (commencing with Section 11120) of Chapter 1 of Part 1 of Division 3 of Title 2 of, the Government Code, any of the following is guilty of a public offense punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for not more than one year, or in the state prison:
(1) Any firearm.
(2) Any deadly weapon described in Section 653k or 12020.
(3) Any knife with a blade length in excess of four inches, the blade of which is fixed or is capable of being fixed in an unguarded position by the use of one or two hands.
Thus no knives longer than 4" in state and public buildings. Exact definition of the state or local public meeting and open to public buildings can be found in 171.b(c). In short, those are state or local government owned or leased buildings such as courts, police stations, city halls, etc. Meetings mean wherever those officials get together to conduct regular or irregular work, e.g. city council meetings.
626.10- As stated above defines knives school carry. Again, this one is way too big. For the reference - full text of the penal code 626.10. Subdivision a prohibits you can not bring a fixed blade knife longer than 2.5", a folding knife, ice pick, etc to the school. Subdivision b is pretty much identical, applies to universities and colleges, same restrictions, but folding knives are ok. Subdivisions c, d, e, f make exemptions. E.g. Knives for food preparation and other work places are ok. Students can bring knives if directed so by school or university employees. Subdivision a is below:
(a) Any person, except a duly appointed peace officer as defined in Chapter 4.5 (commencing with Section 830) of Title 3 of Part 2, a full-time paid peace officer of another state or the federal government who is carrying out official duties while in this state, a person summoned by any officer to assist in making arrests or preserving the peace while the person is actually engaged in assisting any officer, or a member of the military forces of this state or the United States who is engaged in the performance of his or her duties, who brings or possesses any dirk, dagger, ice pick, knife having a blade longer than 2 1/2 inches, folding knife with a blade that locks into place, a razor with an unguarded blade, a taser, or a stun gun, as defined in subdivision (a) of Section 244.5, any instrument that expels a metallic projectile such as a BB or a pellet, through the force of air pressure, CO 2 pressure, or spring action, or any spot marker gun, upon the grounds of, or within, any public or private school providing instruction in kindergarten or any of grades 1 to 12, inclusive, is guilty of a public offense, punishable by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year, or by imprisonment in the state prison.
California Code of Regulations
CCR is a bit more complicated. By definition it is: The California Code of Regulations (CCR), is the official compilation and publication of the regulations adopted, amended or repealed by state agencies pursuant to the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). Properly adopted regulations that have been filed with the Secretary of State have the force of law. In practice, it's quite difficult to tell who or which agency proposed what, and what if it conflicts with other laws. Still, let's have a look at the provision we're interested in. My sincere thanks to the reader who brought this CCR provision to my attention.
Title 5/Division 10/Chapter 1/S 100015- Specifically deals with non-affiliates in buildings and on the grounds of the University of California, violation of which is a misdemeanor. Since the online page won't link directly I'll quote most of the section:
No non-affiliate shall, on University property, carry upon his/her person or have in his/her possession or under his/her control any Dangerous Weapon. For purposes of this Section,
"Dangerous Weapon" means and includes, but is not limited to:
- A. Any firearm in violation of the Gun-Free School Zone Act of 1995, California Penal Code section 626.9.
- B. Any knife having a blade two and one-half inches or more in length.
- C. Any folding knife with a blade that locks into place.
- D. Any ice pick or similar sharp tool that can be used as a stabbing implement capable of inflicting serious bodily injury.
- E. Any razor with an unguarded blade.
- F. Any cutting, stabbing or bludgeoning weapon or device capable of inflicting serious bodily injury.
- G. Any dirk or dagger.
- H. Any taser, stun gun, or other similar electronic device.
- I. Any instrument that expels a metallic projectile such as a BB or a pellet, through the force of air pressure, CO2 pressure, or spring action, or any spot marker gun.
And then there's another interesting part: This section shall not apply if, at the time of the alleged violation, the instrument or device alleged to be a Dangerous Weapon was in good faith carried upon the person or in his/her custody or control for use in his/her lawful occupation or employment.
Summary- All of the above means that unless you are an employee or a student of the University of California, you can not carry any fixed blades or any locking knives. Non locking knives are also prohibited, as they fall under section F. Unfortunately, F is so vaguely phrased that it can cover pens, pencils baseball bats, bricks and whatever else. However, if you are able to prove that you had any of those dangerous objects to do your lawful work, then none of the above applies.
- California Penal Code
- Bladeforums Knife Laws Subforum
- California Knife Laws: A Comprehensive Guide by Jim March
- SB 274 Analysis
- AKTI On California Knife Law
- Spring Assisted Knife Laws
Last updated - 03/20/13