Deported immigrant sues twp. over rights violations

Rajnikant Parikh accuses police of brutality, township of deliberate neglect


Rajnikant Parikh, who in 2006 became the subject of a major controversy involving alleged police brutality and collusion with immigration authorities, has launched a federal lawsuit against Edison Township as well as a number of local police officers and federal immigration officials.

Specifically, the lawsuit seeks damages for the violation of Parikh’s constitutional rights (for excessive police force) as well as malicious abuse of process, municipal liability, conspiracy to violate civil rights, violating the New Jersey Civil Rights Act, and assault and battery.

Ravinder S. Bhalla, who has been representing Parikh since the events that took place in the summer of 2006, also said that it is hoped that the lawsuit can lead to reforms in police sensitivity toward the public.

“One intended collateral effect of this type of litigation is to bring about reform within the department, and he is [also] looking for moneyed damages as a way to make him whole for serious violations of his constitutional rights,” Bhalla said in a phone interview. “We see this as Mr. Parikh’s final chance to vindicate his rights.”

Representatives from the township have declined to comment on the matter, since it is a pending case.

The lawsuit, filed July 2 in federal court in New Jersey, is being handled by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund as well as by Bhalla.

The suit alleges that on July 4, 2006, Parikh was approached outside his apartment complex by Edison Police Officer Michael Dotro, who asked Parikh whether he was the owner of a car parked nearby. Parikh said no, he was not the owner, and as he noted that several other cars had been ticketed in front of his building, he remarked to a neighbor that the police were probably writing tickets because they could not find the people who were setting off fireworks that night. Upon hearing Parikh’s comments, according to the lawsuit, Dotro then began swearing at him and “verbally abusing him,” before grabbing him by his neck, pushing him onto the hood of the car, and punching him on the head and back. Then the officer handcuffed Parikh and pushed him to the ground before beginning to again kick and punch him, the lawsuit claims. The suit also claims that five other officers on the scene joined in the assault.

Dotro then arrested Parikh and took him to the Edison police station, where he was held until early the next day. Previous reports in the Sentinel state that Parikh was charged with aggravated assault on a police officer, resisting arrest, rioting and failure to disperse.

Upon being released, Parikh was treated at the emergency room of JFK Medical Center. The lawsuit claims that Parikh suffered multiple bruises and contusions to his head, face and back and had severe back pain, and was humiliated, upset and angry that he had been “severely beaten and arrested for no reason and without any provocation on his part.”

The report written by the Edison police regarding the incident places the blame entirely on Parikh, and states that the officers were the ones assaulted. According to the police reports, Dotro had been attempting to write a summons for an illegally parked car near the Hilltop and Trafalger apartments when he was approached by Parikh and 15 other men. The report alleges that after several requests for them to disperse, Parikh, who, according to reports, tried to incite the other men to attack Dotro, was arrested. During the arrest, according to authorities, Parikh hit the officer several times, causing minor injuries, according to police.

An investigation of the matter was later conducted by the police department’s internal affairs unit, and Dotro was cleared of any wrongdoing.

After receiving treatment for his injuries, Parikh filed an official complaint against Dotro and the other police officers for the alleged assault. Following this, Parikh made public calls for Dotro’s resignation, a cause taken up by the local Indian American community, which responded by planning a public rally to be held on Aug. 2, 2006, protesting Parikh’s treatment by the police.

The lawsuit alleges that during the buildup to the rally, Dotro contacted his brother, Sam Dotro, an attorney with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and prompted him to investigate Parikh’s immigration status, “knowing only Parikh’s race, ethnicity and national origin.” The suit then goes on to say that the Dotros, with the help of Mike Schwarz, head of the Edison Policemen’s Benevolent Association, collaborated with ICE to coordinate Parikh’s arrest during the demonstration on Aug. 2.

A representative from ICE’s Newark Bureau said in a statement in April 2007 that an immigration judge reinstated a former order of deportation for Parikh, who had been arrested more than 10 years prior under the name Amit Sheth.

According to the release, Parikh, then under the name Amit Sheth, entered the country illegally in 1995 and was arrested by the U.S. Border Patrol in Texas. Parikh was at that point ordered to be deported, and he returned four years later in 1999 under his current name.

During an August 2006 interview with Greater Media Newspapers, a spokeswoman from ICE confirmed that the federal agency “coordinate[d] closely with the police department.”

Maxine Lee, an immigration attorney and Edison resident, said that constitutional rights still apply even to people who are in this country illegally. “The Constitution still applies to people not in legal status in the U.S. They do not have constitutional rights if they are outside the border, but once inside the border, the Constitution still applies to them. They still have due process rights,” said Lee.

The suit says that Parikh was arrested suddenly and unexpectedly at the rally on Aug. 2 by immigration authorities, and that Parikh’s apprehension was in retribution for his complaint and calls for Dotro’s resignation. He was placed in federal custody and was charged with immigration violations. In April of that year, he was deported to India, where he currently resides.

Then-Police Chief George Mieczkowski launched an internal investigation to determine who tipped off federal authorities, with Mayor Jun Choi and the chief both stating that they had not known that Parikh was going to be the target of ICE. This sparked the Edison Police Department to call for Choi’s resignation, saying that the investigation was a politically motivated attempt to mollify the Indian American community.

The investigation was completed near the beginning of December 2006, and its conclusion was that Choi and Mieczkowski were not involved in the arrest. Two unnamed Edison police officers were said to have been aware that the arrest was going to take place and were “counseled regarding their responsibilities as officers,” according to a statement released around December 2006. The focus of the disciplinary action centered around the officers’ lack of recognition for the chain of command, because they had not informed superiors that an outside agency had contacted them.

According to Bhalla, Parikh hopes that the federal lawsuit will accomplish what Parikh feels the local, county and state systems could not.

“His feeling is that the legal system in the U.S. has failed him on the local level, the state level and the county level, so this is his last chance to uncover the truth abut what happened that summer and to bring some more accountability,” Bhalla said. “No one’s been disciplined or trained as a result of their conduct, and we see this as Mr. Parikh’s opportunity to have his day in court.”