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O.C. Consumer Unit Files Suit to Bar Pen Knife

March 08, 1994|MARK I. PINSKY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — Is Remington's "Classic Writing Pen Knife" an innocent letter opener or a potentially deadly concealed weapon?

On Monday, Orange County consumer prosecutors filed suit to answer the question, prompting one of the area's largest discount retailers to immediately pull the product from store shelves.

"We don't want to sell something that's not legal," said Matthew A. Ross, director of stores for Fedco Inc. "I certainly wouldn't want someone purchasing this item until the decision is made on its legality. Fedco's always been a good citizen. We've always cooperated with law enforcement authorities."

The Orange County district attorney filed suit against Fedco, Fedco Shaver Shops and the pen knife distributor, Remington Products Co. The suit charges that the 5-inch item--with a ballpoint at one end and, beneath a cap, a 2 1/2-inch blade at the other--is a "stabbing instrument" banned by state law.

A hearing to consider a temporary restraining order barring the sale of the pen knife, which sells for $6.87, has been scheduled for Wednesday in Orange County Superior Court.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert C. Gannon Jr., supervising prosecutor in the Consumer and Environmental Protection Unit, said that by design, the pen knife is "clearly deceptive in appearance. That's part of our concern. People could be so easily disarmed by its appearance."

California law specifically bans any "writing pen knife," defined by the statute as "a device that appears to be a writing pen but has concealed within it a pointed, metallic shaft that is designed to be a stabbing instrument," the lawsuit states.

Violation of the statute is a felony. The penalty for making, advertising, selling, purchasing or possessing such knives is punishable by up to three years in prison, Gannon said.

Gannon said his unit first became aware of the product by a caller who saw it at the Costa Mesa Fedco. He said there was no indication that the product has been used in an illegal fashion, or how many have been sold during the two months it has been on the market.

But Gannon said that one of his chief worries is that the pen knife could be taken into schools.

"It could bypass a metal detector," he said. "No one would suspect that it was a potentially deadly weapon. . . . It does not appear to be anything that could be adapted to a key chain. . . . No law enforcement agencies have run across this item to date, thank God."

The blade of the product is pointed and fixed, with a single, sharpened edge, Gannon said, adding he believes it was not manufactured in the United States.

"We have not had any settlement discussions as yet, but we expect to obtain full cooperation with Fedco as far as halting sales of illegal items," Gannon said. "I would be shocked if they did not agree to remove these items from their stores and to surrender them for destruction."

Within hours of the suit being filed, Fedco's Ross contacted the 10 Southern California stores where the product is sold by a concessionaire and ordered them removed from the shelves.

Ross said that Fedco does not advertise, market or sell the product. Nonetheless, since Ross was unable to contact Remington, which operates the Shaver Shop concessions at the Fedco stores, he ordered them removed immediately.

A clerk at Fedco's Costa Mesa store, who declined to give his name, said the product is meant to function as a letter opener.

"It looks like a letter opener to me," Ross agreed.

"I don't care what they call them," Gannon said.

The district attorney's consumer protection unit has taken an aggressive stance on a variety of issues since Gannon, who formerly prosecuted high-profile homicide cases, joined the unit.

Last year, prosecutors sued an Anaheim X-ray center, alleging that employees performed mammography exams without properly certified equipment, presenting potential health risks to hundreds of women. In that case, the company has denied wrongdoing and the litigation is pending.

The unit has also sued and later settled with the operators of a Huntington Beach taco stand accused of skimping on the beef in its burritos, and a Garden Grove food company accused of manufacturing tofu products under filthy conditions.

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