A former Hays man who served more than 11 years in prison for a 2004 Hays murder was back in Ellis County District Court last week to argue for suppression of evidence from a drug arrest in Hays.
Kurt J. Stecklein, 42, was arrested on Nov. 18 in the alley of the 100 block of East 15th after police were dispatched for a report of a person passed out in a vehicle for three hours.
Stecklein pleaded in February not guilty to charges of possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine and driving under the influence of drugs. He remains in custody in the Ellis County Jail.
His arrest in Hays came just a little more than five weeks after completing his prison sentence for second-degree murder and two counts of aggravated battery in the 2004 strangulation death of his girlfriend Lindsay Nicole Meyers, 25. Stecklein had been placed on post-release supervision in Missouri.
In two motions filed with the court that were heard Wednesday by District Judge Blake Bittel, Stecklein’s attorney, Paul Oller, argued a search of Stecklein’s vehicle was illegal and his statements to police were obtained illegally.
During Wednesday’s testimony, Ellis County Attorney Tom Drees had the arresting officer, Evan Cronn, detail each step of the investigation, starting with him being dispatched to a welfare check of the driver around 10 p.m.
Cronn testified he saw Stecklein slumped over in the driver’s seat. He had to knock on the window a couple of times to get Stecklein to respond to him.
He testified that when he shined his flashlight through the driver’s side window and Stecklein sat up, he could see a small, latex ball.
When Stecklein got out of the vehicle, he was unsteady on his feet, Cronn said, and he failed a field sobriety test. He placed Stecklein under arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence, possession of drug paraphernalia and distribution of heroin/certain stimulants, and placed him, in handcuffs, in his patrol vehicle.
Cronn said a search of the vehicle turned up two more of the latex balls and a drawstring bag that contained a butane torch.
Stecklein told Cronn he was diabetic and that could affect the field sobriety test. Cronn said a diabetic blood testing kit was also found in the vehicle. A blood test later would show his blood sugar was within a normal range.
Cronn said after taking Stecklein to the jail, he field-tested the white powder and white crystalline substance in one of the latex balls. The powder tested negative for both heroin and cocaine, but the other substance tested positive for methamphetamine.
Cronn said he returned to the jail, where he read Stecklein his Miranda rights and questioned him further.
A search warrant for the vehicle was obtained early the next morning.
Oller centered his argument and questioning around the warrantless search, questioning if it was a search incident to arrest — a principal that allows police to perform a search of an arrested person or an area under the person’s immediate control without obtaining a warrant in the interest of officer safety, prevention of escape or destruction of evidence.
“What was the exigent reason you had to just go through the vehicle?” Oller asked Cronn in cross examination.
The officer answered that his training indicated to him the latex ball — which turned out to be a glove — likely contained drugs.
“You went on your hunch to say ‘I think this is drugs’?” Oller asked.
“I went on my training,” Cronn answered.
“The law recognizes certain exceptions to require a search warrant. None of those apply,” Oller said in his closing arguments, noting the handcuffed Stecklein was not a danger to officers, the car could have been impounded or officers who arrived after Cronn could have stayed with the vehicle until a search warrant could be obtained.
Drees said the officer took the proper steps in his investigation. A warrant wasn’t needed because the officer’s training in realizing the latex glove likely contained drugs gave him probable cause to search the vehicle, he said.
The probable cause became even stronger when the field sobriety test indicated to Cronn that Stecklein was under the influence of drugs, not alcohol, Drees said.
At the conclusion of the hearing, Bittel called a 10-minute recess to review the case; however, before the 10 minutes was up, his administrative assistant told the defense and prosecution the judge wanted to take more time to research and would issue his ruling later.
As of Friday afternoon, a ruling not been filed.
Stecklein was sentenced to 14 years in prison in January 2007, more than two years after he was arrested in Meyers’ Oct. 9, 2004, death. She was found dead at the residence they shared early that Saturday morning. The autopsy showed the cause of death as asphyxiation and that she had been beaten in the head.
The case was held up mainly due to a motion to dismiss the charges for violation of attorney-client privilege over recordings of telephone calls between Stecklein and his attorneys.
Initially, District Judge Ed Bouker ruled Stecklein’s rights had been violated but did not dismiss the charges. About eight months later, after reviewing hundreds of pages of documents, Booker reversed his ruling, saying transcripts showed Stecklein knew the calls were being recorded.
Originally charged with first-degree murder, Stecklein entered a plea bargain to second degree murder a little more than a week before trial.
With credit for the 839 days he served in the Ellis County Jail, Stecklein was eligible for release in October.