The alleged NYC-area bomber and his family were engaged in a 7-year long court battle with city officials over late-night hours and accusations of ethnic prejudice at the restaurant they ran in Elizabeth N.J., and the father of the family declared bankruptcy in 2005, my review of extensive federal court records has found.
The extensive legal history paints the picture of a family that was intimately familiar with the ways of the U.S. justice system, and had spent many years working within it, both to obtain financial relief, and to assert what it believed to be its civil rights.
In a 2005 bankruptcy filing, Mohammed Rahami described himself as a single father with 8 kids working as a cook at First American Chicken in Elizabeth. At the time, he said he had take-home pay of $1,450 per month but $37,000 in unsecured debt — mostly credit card debt. The filing does not say Rahami owned the business. It says he was paying rent of $700 for an apartment at the address listed for the restaurant. Other news reports indicate the family lived in an apartment above the eatery.
The family’s only real possession at the time, according to the filing, was a 1999 Chevy Suburban worth $7,000 – but the family owed more in a loan on the vehicle that it was worth. Listed under debtors, Rahami held a Bank One credit card with an outstanding balance of $8,300, a Capital One card at $6,133, a Chase card at $8,294 a Citibank card at $6,178, and a Direct Merchants Credit Card Bank debt of $4,760
There are also unpaid doctor and lawyer bills. He also owed a high balance on a car loan held by Thrift Inestment Corp, which specializes in loans to the “non standard credit market,” according to its website.
The debt was discharged in federal court in 2006. A call to Rahami’s bankruptcy attorney wasn’t immediately returned.
Soon after, the Rahami family began a protracted legal battle with the city of Elizabeth that ultimately led to a massive court docket with 71 filings. The family sued the city and various law enforcement officials in federal court in 2011 for “singling plaintiffs out on the basis of race, religion, or national origin.” It accuses one police officer of repeatedly telling the family “Muslims make too much trouble in this country,” and “Muslims should not have businesses here.” It also claims the city selectively enforced laws to harm the family’s business.
A review of those files shows the Rahami family opened the restaurant in 2002. Soon after, the city of Elizabeth passed an ordinance forcing restaurants to close at 10 p.m., with some exceptions. In July 2008, the family received a summons for staying open past 10 p.m. The 2011 lawsuit claims that summons was dismissed after the city ruled First American Chicken qualified for an exemption. After that, the lawsuit says, law enforcement officials continued to threaten the family with legal action for staying open late despite the exemption ruling. At one point, a police officer who told the restaurant to close at 10 p.m. were shown the court order and responded, “I don’t believe it.” Instead, officers repeated that the restaurant was contributing to making the area ripe for criminal activity, the lawsuit says.
“Many other food-based establishments, including but not limited to Duncan donuts (sic), White Castle, Carvel and other restaurants in the immediate vicinity stayed open past 10 p.m. without incident,” the lawsuit says.
Five summons were issued from April to June 2009, the lawsuit says. Those summons were eventually dismissed, according to the lawsuit.
“On some occasions, police would advise that it was ‘ok’ to keep the restaurant open; on some occasions, the police…would tell them to shut it down,” the lawsuit claims.
At one point, two family members were detained when trying to record an interaction with police. Mohammed K. Rahami – believed to be the bombing suspect — was charged with disorderly conduct; the other family member was released.
The restaurant continued its late-night hours “without incident” or further tickets after Feb. 15, 2010, the lawsuit says.
All parties agreed to a stay of the federal civil rights case in 2012. Meanwhile, Mohammed K. had pled guilty in municipal court to one of the late-night summons and a $233 fine, but in a 2014 court filing he claimed the guilty plea was coerced. His lawyer filed several motions in an attempt to withdraw that municipal court guilty plea. One of those motions cites a Superior Court of N.J. state appellate court decision on the summons, which indicates the family had conceded that more than 5 percent of it late-night business was take-out, disqualifying it for the late-night exemption. The court refused to overturn a lower court ruling against the family in part because the fine was small and no jail time had been assessed, but mainly because court filing deadlines had been missed.
In 2015, the Rahami family’s attorney filed a motion to withdraw as counsel. At the time, the court acknowledged the family was now operating pro se, meaning they were representing themselves.
The case file dies quietly soon after when a court notice about a conference sent to the Rahami family was returned as undeliverable. The notice was sent to the current address for First American Chicken, and it was not immediately clear why the notice was returned.
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