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IN COURT OF APPEALS
State of Minnesota,
Christine L. Holly,
Washington County District Court
File No. KX996896
Mike Hatch, Attorney General, 525 Park Street, Suite 500, St. Paul, MN 55103; and
Douglas H. Johnson, Washington County Attorney, Jay A. Brunner, Assistant County Attorney, 14949 62nd Street North, PO Box 6, Stillwater, MN 55082-0006 (for respondent)
Mark J. Kallenbach, 2260 Ridge Drive, Suite 13, Minneapolis, MN 55416 (for appellant)
Considered and decided by Schumacher, Presiding Judge, Amundson, Judge, and Halbrooks, Judge.
Appellant Christine Louise Holly appeals from a conviction of fifth-degree controlled substance crime, arguing that the investigating officer lacked reasonable suspicion to justify a Terry stop when he observed half of her rear license plate covered by snow. Appellant also argues that she did not voluntarily consent to a search of her vehicle, and gave no consent to a search of her purse. Finally, appellant contends that the officer should have given her a Miranda warning before the searches. Because we find that, once the original purpose of the stop was accomplished, the stop became an illegal seizure, we reverse.
On December 28, 1999, the Woodbury police department was conducting drug surveillance at the Country Inn. A surveillance officer observed a blond woman leaving the hotel room of a known drug dealer, radioed this information to other officers in the area, and requested that another police officer determine the identity of the woman. Outside the hotel, Woodbury Police Officer Gort saw a blond female get into a silver truck and drive off. The officer followed the vehicle and attempted to identify the driver by running her license plate number, but snow covering the bottom half of the license plate obstructed the numbers. As the truck turned onto the entrance ramp to Interstate 94, Officer Gort activated his flashing lights and pulled the vehicle over. According to his testimony, he stopped the vehicle only because the obstructed plate violated Minn. Stat. § 169.79 (1998).
Appellant immediately pulled over, but she was unable to produce a driver’s license. Officer Gort asked appellant to sit in his police car while he determined if she had a valid license. The wind was blowing and the wind chill was below zero. Gort testified that he asked appellant to stay in the squad car because of the inclement weather and in order to simplify an arrest, if it became necessary. As they walked past the rear of her vehicle, the officer showed appellant that her license plate was obscured by snow. Appellant was neither handcuffed nor frisked before being placed in the back seat.
Gort ran computer searches with appellant’s name and the license plate number. He determined that appellant’s license was valid and that her father was the registered owner of the vehicle. Gort then began asking drug-related questions. He advised her that the Woodbury police were trying to fight controlled substances in the area and he inquired if he could search her vehicle. He also asked appellant, “Do you have any controlled substances or narcotics on you or in your vehicle?” Appellant’s first response was, “I don’t know.” She told Gort that the vehicle belonged to her father and she did not know what it contained. Gort told appellant that she did not have to consent to the search, but if she did not have any drugs in her vehicle, a search should not be a problem. He again asked if he could search the car. According to Gort, appellant then responded, “Fine, okay, sure.” Appellant denies that she gave Gort permission to search the vehicle.
Appellant stayed in the squad car while Gort searched her vehicle. He found and searched her purse that had been on the passenger side floor. The purse contained a contact lens case that held three rocks that he believed to be methamphetamine. Gort returned to the squad car and asked appellant to step out of the vehicle. He then placed her under arrest, handcuffed her, and read appellant her Miranda rights. When she asked why she was being arrested, Gort showed her the rocks. He asked her to identify them, and appellant admitted the rocks were “crystal meth.”
While waiting for transportation for appellant, Gort asked appellant if she had any more methamphetamine in the vehicle or on her person. She admitted she had drugs in her bra. He informed her that the drugs would be removed at the law enforcement center. Appellant told Gort that she wanted him to remove the drugs. Gort then went to the backseat and used his flashlight to find the drugs inside appellant’s bra. He reached into her shirt, felt around her breast, and retrieved the drugs.
Appellant waived her right to a jury trial and submitted the case to the court on stipulated facts in accordance with the procedure set out in State v. Lothenbach, 296 N.W.2d 854, 858 (Minn. 1980). On April 24, 2000, appellant was adjudicated guilty of possessing methamphetamine in violation of Minn. Stat. § 152.025, subds. 2(1), 3 (1998). On May 12, 2000, the trial court sentenced appellant to one year and one day plus ten years probation. The sentence was stayed pending this appeal.
The parties argue whether the stop itself was legal. Although this is a close case, we find the initial stop legal but hold that the continued detention of appellant exceeded a justifiable scope and became an illegal arrest.
Appellant argues that the stop of her vehicle was illegal because there was no reasonably suspected criminal activity as the United States Supreme Court required in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S. Ct. 1868 (1968). But when an officer uses a valid objective basis—probable cause that the driver committed a minor traffic violation—as a reason for stopping a driver suspected of possessing narcotics, the stop will be upheld. Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 818-19, 116 S. Ct. 1769, 1776-77 (1996). An officer’s “[s]ubjective intentions play no role in ordinary, probable-cause Fourth Amendment analysis.” Id. at 813, 116 S. Ct. 1774.
Gort admits that he followed appellant’s vehicle because she fit the description from surveillance but testified that he stopped her only because of her snow-covered plates. “Ordinarily, if an officer observes a violation of a traffic law, however insignificant, the officer has an objective basis for stopping the vehicle.” State v. George, 557 N.W.2d 575, 578 (Minn. 1997) (citations omitted). Minnesota law mandates that drivers must keep license plates “free from grease, dust, or other blurring material so that the lettering shall be plainly visible at all times.” Minn. Stat. § 169.79 (1998). Therefore, because appellant’s license plate was covered by blown snow, Gort had an objective reason to pull appellant over, making the initial stop lawful.
Appellant was detained in the back of the police car as Gort verified that she had a valid driver’s license. Once this information was confirmed, an ordinary traffic stop would have concluded.
The general rule is that the detention which follows a lawful stop “may not continue indefinitely but only as long as reasonably necessary to effectuate the purpose of the stop.”
State v. Bell, 557 N.W.2d 603, 606 (Minn. App. 1996) (citations omitted), review denied (Minn. Mar. 18, 1997).
To justify the continued seizure after confirming that her license was valid, and conduct a limited stop for investigatory purposes, a police officer must have reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity. Terry, 392 U.S. at 24, 88 S. Ct. at 1881; State v. Haataja, 611 N.W.2d 353, 354 (Minn. App. 2000), review denied (Minn. July 25, 2000). An officer may make an investigatory stop if the officer, at the time of the stop, can articulate a particular, reasonable, and objective basis for believing the stopped individual was engaged in criminal activity. State v. Johnson, 444 N.W.2d 824, 827 (Minn. 1989) (citing United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417-18, 101 S. Ct. 690, 694-95 (1981)). To be considered reasonable, an officer’s suspicion must be based on specific, articulable facts. State v Cripps, 533 N.W.2d 388, 391 (Minn. 1995). The requirement is minimal, but the stop must be based on more than “mere whim, caprice, or idle curiosity.” Marben v. State Dep’t of Pub. Safety, 294 N.W.2d 697, 699 (Minn. 1980) (citation omitted). An investigatory stop must be based on more than an “unarticulated hunch.” State v. Britton, 604 N.W.2d 84, 87 (Minn. 2000) (quotation omitted). Without sufficient individualized suspicion of criminal activity, the evidence obtained must be suppressed as fruit of an illegal seizure. Cripps, 533 N.W.2d at 392.
In reviewing a Fourth Amendment issue, we accept the district court’s findings of fact, unless clearly erroneous, but independently apply Fourth Amendment caselaw to the facts as found. State v. Saffeels, 484 N.W.2d 429, 430 (Minn. App. 1992), review denied (Minn. June 1, 1992). We review the legality of a limited investigatory stop and questions of reasonable suspicion de novo. State v. Munson, 594 N.W.2d 128, 135 (Minn. 1999); In re Welfare of G.M., 560 N.W.2d 687, 690 (Minn. 1997).
Here, Gort saw a blond woman leaving a hotel room of a known drug dealer. There was no other objective basis for suspecting that appellant was engaged in criminal activity other than her mere presence at the hotel. Neither the district court’s findings of fact nor conclusions of law support a reasonable suspicion of any criminal activity other than a violation of Minn. Stat. §169.79. Respondent does not argue that appellant’s presumed association with a known drug dealer created an objective basis for suspecting she was involved in criminal activity that justified Gort’s investigation. See, e.g., State v. Blacksten, 507 N.W.2d 842, 847 (Minn. 1993) (mere association with another suspect does not constitute probable cause for an arrest).
The principal components of a determination of reasonable suspicion * * * will be the events which occurred leading up to the stop or search, and then the decision whether these historical facts, viewed from the standpoint of an objectively reasonable police officer, amount to reasonable suspicion.
State v. Martinson, 581 N.W.2d 846, 850 (Minn. 1998) (quoting Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 696, 116 S. Ct. 1657, 1661-62 (1996)). With the exception of her partially-covered license plate, there was nothing illegal about appellant’s behavior. There was no evidence of erratic driving. She did not attempt to evade Gort when leaving the parking lot and immediately pulled over when he activated his flashing lights. In fact, Gort testified that up until the point that he asked to search her vehicle, appellant was cooperative, he was not afraid of appellant, and she did not exhibit signs of intoxication or other drug use. Gort did not recognize appellant as a known drug user and nothing about her appearance was suspicious. No facts distinguished her from an innocent person other than her association with the suspected drug dealer. See State v. Harris, 590 N.W.2d 90, 100-01 (Minn. 1999) (no reasonable articulable suspicion when activities noted by the officers could be consistent with the activities of any multitude of innocent persons). Moreover,
decisions * * * establish that merely speaking with and being in close proximity with others suspected of criminal activity, without more, may be insufficient to satisfy not only the probable cause requirement for search and seizures, but also insufficient to reach the threshold of reasonable articulable suspicion required to conduct a protective pat search under Terry.
State v. Ingram, 570 N.W.2d 173, 177 (Minn. App. 1997), review denied (Minn. Dec. 22, 1997).
Despite the lack of individualized suspicion of criminal activity, Gort kept appellant in the back seat of his squad car after confirming that her license and the vehicle registration were valid. He began questioning her about the area’s drug enforcement measures. He did not inform her that she was free to leave.
Because appellant’s detention continued beyond the necessary extent of an ordinary traffic stop, and the investigatory aspects of the stop were based more on whim than an objective basis of suspicion of criminal activity, we find the scope of the detention violated constitutional limits. Any evidence discovered as a result of this illegal seizure should have been suppressed by the district court.
Because we find the detention following a lawful stop exceeded the constitutional limits, we do not need to address the other issues raised by appellant.
 It is true that “license plates are the primary means by which the police may identify a vehicle and its owner” and “[e]vidence of tampering * * * or other indications that the vehicle’s occupants are attempting to conceal their identity * * * can be suggestive of ongoing criminal activity.” Britton, 604 N.W.2d at 89. However, here there is no evidence of either license plate tampering or an attempt to conceal identity. Moreover, respondent does not argue that the obstructed plate created a suspicion of other criminal activity. In fact, Gort testified that appellant’s license plate appeared to be obstructed unintentionally by the blowing snow.