Civil rights attorney Olu Orange fights to hold police and governments accountable
Published in 2020 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine on January 15, 2020
In 2008, civil rights attorney Olu Orange was in his office when he received a phone call from a distraught woman. “I’m at a funeral right now and they’re about to bury my friend,” she told him. “I need to know if there’s anything we should do to stop them from doing it again. We want to bring a case because the police killed him.”
“What did you say your name was again?” he asked.
Turns out she was a friend of Mohammad Usman Chaudhry, a Pakistani American with autism who lived at home with his parents, but who would sometimes run away to sleep outside; it felt more comfortable to him. One night, police confronted Chaudhry, lying behind some bushes next to an apartment building in Hollywood, and eventually shot and killed him. They said Chaudhry pulled a knife.
Orange took the case, and turned to the undergraduate students he works with in the University of Southern California’s Dornsife Trial Advocacy Program to canvass the neighborhood and find out more about Chaudhry as well as potential witnesses to the shooting. His students discovered that police had a long history of taunting the autistic man. During discovery, they also found no fingerprints or traces of DNA on the knife, which led them to believe it was planted.
Orange eventually won a wrongful-death suit of $1.7 million. More importantly, he obtained a precedent in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that affirmed pain and suffering damages are still recoverable by the decedent’s estate if federal civil rights violations cause a death.
“As the judge put it,” Orange says, “it ends the trend of making it less expensive for a police officer to kill you rather than hurt you.”
That case had a profound impact on Orange, not only because it set a precedent but because of the parents’ commitment to justice. “They turned down immense amounts of money,” Orange says, “in order to make sure that if anyone else ever had the misfortune of losing a child, they would be protected.”
Orange grew up in central Virginia and went to Howard School of Law, where he excelled in trial advocacy competitions. He ventured west, he claims, for “the weather and the beach.” An effusive talker, he knew from an early age that he wanted to fight for those who don’t get a fair shake. “Civil rights law had always been my plan,” he says. “I guess the question was when was the moment going to come?”
After a stint as in-house counsel at a couple of internet startups, he spent three years as a public defender in Orange County. Later, in private practice, a local union leader representing grocery workers asked him if he’d ever sued the police. Roughly 70,000 workers were on strike for five months, picketing every day, and the cops were harassing them, he said. Orange hadn’t, but he accepted the case. “I sued the Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach and Manhattan Beach police departments,” he says. “I got in for a lot more than I bargained for!”
But it led to a fruitful collaboration. At a Christmas party, Orange was introduced to one of his heroes, celebrated civil rights attorney Dan Stormer. After Orange described his lawsuit, Stormer laughed and said, “Oh man, you’re going to need some help.” With the assistance of Stormer’s firm, Orange won his first civil rights case and began to build a reputation.
Again with Stormer’s help, Orange prevailed in Millender v. County of Los Angeles, a 9th Circuit case that attempted to limit the ability of police to seize guns beyond those mentioned in search warrants. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, but Orange wasn’t on the team that argued it, and the favorable ruling was overturned. “It felt magnificent to win it in front of the 11-judge panel,” he says, “and it felt really bad to lose it in front of the Supreme Court because I didn’t get to argue it.”
One of Orange’s most significant cases began in 2009 while he was volunteering for the LA County Indigent Criminal Defense Appointments program. A 19-year-old man named Chris Rodriguez had been charged with violating a gang injunction curfew at Mar Vista Gardens in Culver City. “He was in jail because he was out past a certain time, in his own neighborhood,” Orange says. “It really made no sense. This was Jim Crow 2.0 right here, in Los Angeles. It’s like a sundown town. … As soon as the sun goes down, black and brown folks need to get out of town. Except here, you can’t even be seen in your own town.”
Most of the attorneys were talking to clients about cutting plea deals. But the 5-foot-tall Rodriguez walked up to Orange and told him point blank, “This is bullshit. This is ridiculous. I’m fighting this. I don’t care how long I have to stay in here to fight it.”
Orange won easily, because by then the California Court of Appeals had ruled the curfew was unlawful. “But the LAPD was going on arresting people for violating this unlawful curfew anyway,” Orange says. “And this was for years, because the case was so old I guess nobody bothered to look at it.”
When Rodriguez and his friend Alberto Cazarez agreed to join a class action lawsuit to seek damages for those affected by the gang injunctions, Orange was surprised to find little support in the legal community. “Nobody wanted to help with the case. Everybody said, ‘This is politically unsavory. You can’t sue on behalf of gang members, even if you say they’re not gang members.’ Gangs and anything to do with gangs have been demonized so horribly for political purposes in California. I mean, California is afraid of its kids.” Once again, Orange turned to Dan Stormer. “He said, ‘Sure, let’s do it,’” Orange says, “which is typical Dan.”
During the trial, Orange brought Rodriguez to his students at USC in the Dornsife Trial Advocacy program—a veritable group of Baker Street Irregulars for the California legal system. Orange started the program in 2001, after being invited to campus to help undergraduates practice and compete in trial advocacy competitions. When his students did well in several national competitions, the dean’s office approached Orange with the opportunity to formalize the program. Now, in addition to coaching competitions, Orange teaches an accredited undergraduate course.
Rodriguez impressed his students. “When Chris and Alberto were arrested that night,” Orange says, “they were on their way back from a study session because the two were taking college classes while they were in high school. They were straight-A students when the cops busted them. It was crazy. Chris has read maybe 80% of the books on my students’ summer reading list.”
Orange and his clients eventually won a landmark settlement that required the city of Los Angeles to create more than $30 million in job and education programs. “They’ll pay for someone’s education [who was affected by the injunction],” Orange explains. “Or, in one case, there was a gentleman who owns an auto repair shop who needed $10,000 worth of new tools. The city bought them.”
It’s because of people like the Chaudhry family and Chris Rodriguez, Orange says, that his civil rights victories are possible. “A lawyer’s ability to do a civil rights case that means something is nothing without a client who’s willing to stand up and go the distance. I’ve been so inspired by my clients.”
Orange’s latest project with his USC students is to create legal defense modules for attorneys working in immigration courts in Harlingen, Texas. Orange says government prosecutors will often spring reports on defense teams—claiming their clients are in a gang, say, with little warning or evidence. So his students talked him into taking them to Texas, where they developed arguments specifically for immigration judges—pressing them to mandate that the government present witnesses to back up its affidavits. He and his students are now working with ProBAR to create and distribute the package to attorneys across the country who work with clients seeking asylum or fighting deportation.
“We’re backsliding,” Orange says of civil rights in the Trump era. “We are backsliding so fast it’s unbelievable. Which is why I enjoy teaching. There’s so much work to be done and I’m not going to be able to do it all. And to the extent this program is a force multiplier, that is the most magnificent thing on the planet.”