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Otter Tail County woman's meth conviction reversed in 'suspicious licenses plate' case

Mismatched license plates did not warrant a police search that resulted in methamphetamine-possession charges against a woman who first refused permission for the search, the Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled.

The 4-3 decision issued on Wednesday reversed the fifth-degree drug possession conviction of Erika Diede, who was charged in Otter Tail County in 2008.

Police stopped her pickup in part because it had license plates registered to a different vehicle. Police asked her to open a cigarette pack that contained methamphetamine. It was later determined that the proper paperwork had been filed for Diede to transfer license plates from another vehicle.

Diede argued the meth evidence should be thrown out because she first denied officers permission to search her cigarette pack and because police had no reason to suspect she was involved in criminal activity.

A district court rejected Diede's argument and convicted her. She received 10 months probation. Diede appealed and lost again before taking her case to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

That court found that the search went beyond the lawful investigation of the license plates and that the search shouldn't have proceeded because Diede initially didn't give permission.

The district court had reasoned that police would have discovered the meth anyway. They arrested Diede's passenger, Dale Hanson, on suspicion of selling drugs. Police said that Diede acted nervous and that Hanson appeared to toss something back into the vehicle.

The Supreme Court's majority said searching Diede went too far because each intrusion during a traffic stop must be "strictly tied to and justified by the circumstances which rendered its initiation permissible."

Diede's eventual consent, the court said, could be considered involuntary because of the officers' persistent questioning and because her passenger had been arrested.

Justices Christopher Dietzen, Lorie Skjerven Gildea and David Stras disagreed with the majority, noting that the probable cause for Hanson's arrest and his and Diede's behavior provided "reasonable articulable suspicion" that Diede also had committed a crime.

Dietzen also noted that officers did not force Diede to show them what was inside her cigarette pack, that she simply changed her mind.

"In my view, the majority goes too far, and simply substitutes its own judgment for that of the district court," he wrote.