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City of Fargo to pay ex-bank executive in botched meth case

A former bank executive in Fargo who lost her job in 2005 while she faced felony methamphetamine charges that were later dismissed is set to get a settlement from the city of Fargo for $62,500 to cover her lost wages.

The payment, expected to be considered for approval by city commissioners at a meeting on Sept. 20, settles a federal lawsuit Candice Rupprecht filed 18 months ago against the Fargo narcotics officer who wrote the search warrant leading to her arrest.

Cass County District Court Judge Douglas Herman threw out the warrant and the search it approved in the criminal case, saying Officer Dane Hjelden misread the results of a meth field test done on a plastic bag found in Rupprecht's garbage.

Rupprecht's lawyer said she's "grateful that the city compensated her for the wrong that was done" and she's hopeful she'll be able to land a job again in Fargo. She was an assistant vice president of information processing at Bank of the West at one time, making more than $100,000 in 2004, according to the civil complaint.

"Her life was interrupted by this," said defense attorney William Kirschner. "She's trying to put this behind her."

Charges against the man Rupprecht was living with in 2005, Shaun Duciaume, were also dismissed due to the issues with the search.

Rupprecht claims in her federal lawsuit she did not use or possess drugs, but a police report on the search of her home on July 21, 2005, alleges she told Hjelden she had used meth for the past two years and had a baggie of meth in her purse.

Police Chief Keith Ternes said he stood by Hjelden's actions in the case and he was disappointed and frustrated the criminal charges were tossed out.

"There's no indication of any wrongdoing on the part of the officer," he said.

Hjelden is a 13-year veteran of the force. He joined the narcotics unit at the start of 2005 and is still in that position, Ternes said.

Ron McLean, the litigator who represented Hjelden on behalf of the city, argued in the filings in the federal lawsuit that the cop was not legally responsible for civil damages, writing, "Officials are not liable for bad guesses in gray areas, they are liable for transgressing bright lines."

A dismissal motion on those grounds was never decided, and McLean said it would have been a gamble to press the issue since a mediated resolution had been urged by U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Klein.

"There's always the risk that you could lose," he said.

Rupprecht and Duciaume argued in pre-trial hearings in their criminal cases that a field test of residue on the plastic baggie didn't indicate meth was present, although Hjelden claimed it did in his application for a search warrant.

Fargo Police Department drug investigators opened an investigation of the two after an anonymous tip. They did an inventory of trash the couple left on the curb for pickup; police need no warrant to search garbage left in public.

Hjelden and another city narcotics officer analyzed the baggie with a Marquis reagent test, which uses formaldehyde and sulfuric acid to test for the possible presence of various drugs, such as methamphetamine.

Those chemicals produce different colors in reaction with different drugs. For meth, it turns orange and then brown, experts testified in the criminal cases.

Hjelden testified that the sample turned orange and then a light brown. Defense experts said to indicate for meth, it must turn dark brown. Herman sided with Rupprecht and suppressed the search.

Judge Cynthia Rothe-Seeger ruled in the prosecutor's favor in an earlier hearing on the same issue in the Duciaume case but allowed Duciaume to withdraw his guilty plea and then threw out the search after a second hearing.

Ternes said he knows of no other cases where drug charges were dismissed on a similar defense.

"I'm not aware of any other case - either recent or beyond recent history - where a criminal case or search warrant has been suppressed as the result of the field test results that would be similar to this particular case," he said.

The chief also said there was no change in the way drug investigators use the field testing kits in the wake of the suppression rulings in 2006 and 2007.

"We're very comfortable in how those things are processed," Ternes said.

City Attorney Erik Johnson said the settlement agreement should be on the City Commission agenda on Sept. 20. McLean said the $62,500 will be paid out of the city's general fund.

The deal was mediated by Klein at a hearing Aug. 20. The amount was meant to be a rough estimate of two years of pay, McLean said.

In court documents, Rupprecht, 48, said her Bank of the West post paid more than $100,000 and that her new position as co-owner of a bank consulting firm - the job she lost upon being charged - was expected to pay just as much.

Still, she was generally content with the payout's size, Kirschner said.

"You'd always like to have more," he said.