A Little Humanity

Civil rights attorney Ron Kaye leads the charge against malfeasance in law enforcement

Published in 2016 Southern California Super Lawyers — February 2016

While visiting his brother at Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles in February 2011, Gabriel Carrillo violated regulations by bringing his cellphone into the visiting room, and four deputies took him into an adjoining room to arrest him. By the time he came out, he had been severely beaten, suffered partial paralysis of his face and was looking at 14 years in prison.

Police reports indicated he was aggressive and had one hand free. “Mind you, there were four cops, he was by himself, he’s five-foot-six,” says Carrillo’s lawyer, Ron Kaye, who practices civil rights and criminal defense law at Kaye McLane Bednarski & Litt in Pasadena.

“Luckily, we had photographs reflecting circumferential scarring on both wrists demonstrating he was in handcuffs the entirety of the incident. Witnesses outside the room … testified that every time the door opened all the fighting that was happening inside immediately ceased.”

A week before his criminal trial, the district attorney dismissed the case without prejudice and Kaye subsequently filed a civil suit on Carrillo’s behalf. Then the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office got involved. Kaye reached out to the federal agencies, gave them information about the case, and then, Kaye says, “Grand jury proceedings commenced against the deputies who beat and then wrongfully charged Gabriel.”

He adds: “It’s one of the most amazing stories because every single aspect of the criminal justice system and civil rights world was touched by this case. Not only did we beat the criminal case and get him a lot of money … but they’ve now got convictions against the deputies. The whole thing has gone full circle.”

Kaye, who focuses on protecting the rights of the incarcerated and identifying systemic problems in law enforcement and corrections institutions, is proud of the $1.175 million settlement for Carrillo. But he’s just as interested in changing perceptions.

“The public perception of the community is better. They’re not necessarily taking the word of law enforcement as gospel,” Kaye says. “My clients were all major criminals serving life sentences, but the juries still came back in their favor, saying, ‘I don’t care; they’re still human beings. And if you can’t treat people who are in the most compromised position with a little humanity, what is this country about?’”

Kaye has been doing this kind of work for a while now. Fresh out of law school, he went to El Salvador during its civil war to join an independent investigation, supported by members of Congress, into the murder of six Jesuit priests, a housekeeper and her daughter at Central American University. A month after the police attack on Rodney King, he investigated corruption within the LAPD as a member of the Christopher Commission. Then he became a federal public defender for eight years.

These experiences simply whetted Kaye’s appetite.

“The United States has the largest percentage of people incarcerated—period. And the get-tough-on-crime mentality from the ’90s just furthered this message that the police could do whatever they want,” he says. “So the community just said, ‘Enough is enough.’ Ours is a country built on respect for individual rights, and to give police this ability to prey upon individuals—regardless of if they engage in criminal conduct—is contrary to the tenets of our society.”

Kaye also works with several Innocence Project branches throughout the country. “They turn to us to handle the civil litigation for wrongful imprisonment cases,” says Kaye, who helped Thomas Lee Goldstein, Francisco Carrillo Jr. and Frank O’Connell—all of whom served more than 20 years after being convicted of crimes but were later exonerated. “In our society, nothing creates change better than large settlements or verdicts against law enforcement. It creates political awareness that this is not only a level of injustice happening, but one that is fiscally irresponsible.”

He remains optimistic for the future.

“One guy who’s been wronged gets to sue the largest county in the United States,” he says. “I feel like this work that I do furthers justice, and it only can help prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future.”

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