State v. Noel

Decision Date06 November 2015
Docket NumberNo. 14–0174.,14–0174.
Citation779 S.E.2d 877
CourtWest Virginia Supreme Court
Parties STATE of West Virginia, Plaintiff Below, Respondent v. James Earl NOEL, Jr., Defendant Below, Petitioner.

David L. White, Charleston, WV, for Petitioner.

Patrick Morrisey, Attorney General, Elbert Lin, Solicitor General, Gilbert Dickey, Assistant Attorney General, Julie A. Warren, Assistant Attorney General, Charleston, WV, for Respondent.

DAVIS, Justice:

The petitioner herein and defendant below, James Earl Noel, Jr. ("Mr. Noel"), appeals from a sentencing order entered January 30, 2014, by the Circuit Court of Mercer County. By that order, as corrected by its March 18, 2014, amended sentencing order,1 the circuit court upheld Mr. Noel's jury convictions and sentenced him therefor as follows: one to five years for his conviction of fleeing in a vehicle;2 one to fifteen years for his conviction of possession with intent to deliver a schedule II controlled substance (cocaine);3 and one to five years for his conviction of possession with intent to deliver a schedule II controlled substance (methamphetamine),4 said sentences to run consecutively. On appeal to this Court, Mr. Noel raises two assignments of error: (1) the circuit court erred by not suppressing evidence discovered by the arresting officer at the time of the subject traffic stop and (2) the circuit court erred by allowing Mr. Noel's attorney to answer as to whether Mr. Noel intended to testify at his trial in violation of State v. Neuman, 179 W.Va. 580, 371 S.E.2d 77 (1988).5 Upon a review of the parties' arguments, the record designated for appellate consideration, and the pertinent authorities, we conclude that the search of Mr. Noel's car was unlawful and that the circuit court erred by not suppressing the evidence found during that search. Accordingly, we reverse Mr. Noel's convictions and resultant sentences and remand this case for a new trial.


On August 23, 2013, Mr. Noel was driving through the streets of downtown Bluefield, West Virginia, when Bluefield Police Officer K.L. Adams ("Officer Adams"), who was patrolling those streets in a police car, pulled out behind him. Mr. Noel then turned onto a side street, and Officer Adams continued his patrol route. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Noel exited a side street in front of Officer Adams' cruiser, whereupon Officer Adams noticed that Mr. Noel's vehicle had a large, horizontal crack in the windshield, which spanned from one side of the windshield to the other and had additional cracks radiating vertically from the main crack. Believing the windshield cracks posed a safety hazard, Officer Adams activated his cruiser's lights to effectuate a stop of Mr. Noel's vehicle.6 Rather than stopping his vehicle, however, Mr. Noel drove away at a high rate of speed, reaching speeds of eighty to ninety miles per hour, through residential and campus streets of Bluefield. Upon reaching a particular residence, Mr. Noel stopped his vehicle in front of the house, exited his vehicle, and attempted to flee on foot; shortly thereafter, Officer Adams apprehended him.

Upon returning Mr. Noel to the location where Mr. Noel's vehicle and Officer Adams' police cruiser were parked, Officer Adams asked Mr. Noel for his driver's license; Mr. Noel stated that he did not have a driver's license, but produced an identification card issued by the State of Ohio. Investigating further, Officer Adams learned that Mr. Noel's driver's license had been suspended due to numerous violations. Mr. Noel additionally claimed that he had traveled to that particular house to visit its resident, but the woman living there said that, while she knew who Mr. Noel was, she did not know why he would be visiting her. While Officer Adams engaged in this conversation with the home's occupant, Mr. Noel again attempted to flee on foot.

Eventually, Officer Adams placed Mr. Noel in handcuffs. At this point in time, Mr. Noel was standing next to the driver's side door of his vehicle, and the driver's side door was open. Officer Adams later testified that Mr. Noel repeatedly glanced inside his vehicle and at the vehicle's center console. Apparently fearing that Mr. Noel either might have a weapon on his person or in his vehicle that he was attempting to access, Officer Adams searched under the vehicle's driver's seat and in the vehicle's center console, where he discovered crack cocaine and methamphetamine. At trial, Officer Adams explained that Mr. Noel's lack of a valid driver's license and his repeated attempts to flee, coupled with his knowledge that persons in custody have been known to escape police handcuffs and retrieve a weapon, led him to search the vehicle. After placing Mr. Noel under arrest for fleeing but before transporting him to the police station for processing, Officer Adams conducted an inventory of Mr. Noel's car in preparation for its impoundment; during the inventory process, Officer Adams also discovered straws used to crush and inhale drugs and latex gloves. On the way to the police station, Mr. Noel allegedly asked Officer Adams, "Who ratted me out? How did you know to pull me over?" The State did not reveal this dialogue to Mr. Noel or his attorney until right before his criminal trial was scheduled to begin. As a result of this delayed disclosure, the trial court prohibited the State from using this statement in its case-in-chief, but allowed it to be used for purposes of impeachment on cross-examination.

Mr. Noel was indicted by a Mercer County grand jury on charges of fleeing in a vehicle, possession with intent to deliver a schedule II controlled substance (cocaine), and possession with intent to deliver a schedule II controlled substance (methamphetamine). Prior to trial, Mr. Noel moved to suppress the evidence Officer Adams discovered upon searching his vehicle, arguing that no probable cause existed for either the traffic stop or the subsequent vehicle search. The trial court denied Mr. Noel's motion and allowed the drug evidence to be admitted at trial. At the commencement of his jury trial on December 26, 2013, the trial court informed Mr. Noel of his right to testify and his right to remain silent, and that the jury would be instructed accordingly; Mr. Noel answered in the affirmative when the trial court asked if he had understood this explanation of his rights. Thereafter, at the beginning of Mr. Noel's case-in-chief, the trial court asked whether Mr. Noel intended to testify, to which his attorney replied in the negative. Upon the conclusion of the trial, the jury convicted Mr. Noel of fleeing in a vehicle and possession with the intent to distribute cocaine and methamphetamine. During the ensuing sentencing hearing, the trial court sentenced Mr. Noel to one to five years for his conviction of fleeing in a vehicle, one to fifteen years for his conviction of possession with intent to deliver a schedule II controlled substance (cocaine), and one to five years for his conviction of possession with intent to deliver a schedule II controlled substance (methamphetamine), which sentences were memorialized by the court's January 30, 2014, sentencing order and its March 18, 2014, amended sentencing order.7 From these convictions and corresponding sentences, Mr. Noel appeals to this Court.


In the case sub judice, Mr. Noel asserts two alleged errors. Because this Court's review of each of these issues is governed by a different standard, we will set forth the applicable standard of review in our discussion of each issue.


On appeal to this Court, Mr. Noel raises two assignments of error: (1) the circuit court erred by refusing to suppress the evidence that Officer Adams obtained from his search of Mr. Noel's car and (2) the circuit court violated Mr. Noel's rights under State v. Neuman, 179 W.Va. 580, 371 S.E.2d 77 (1988), by allowing Mr. Noel's attorney to answer whether Mr. Noel intended to testify in his own defense at trial. We will address each of these assigned errors in turn.

A. Motion to Suppress Search Evidence

Mr. Noel first argues that the circuit court erred by denying his motion to suppress evidence discovered during Officer Adams' search of Mr. Noel's vehicle. After Officer Adams handcuffed Mr. Noel, who was standing at the open, driver's side door of his car, Officer Adams searched the interior of the vehicle because, he explained, he was afraid Mr. Noel had a weapon that he would be able to retrieve. During this search, Officer Adams discovered evidence that led to Mr. Noel's arrest and conviction for the two drug charges in the case sub judice. Mr. Noel contends that the search and resultant evidence was improper because Officer Adams did not have probable cause to effectuate a traffic stop of his vehicle.

The State responds that the West Virginia vehicle safety statutes provided Officer Adams with sufficient probable cause to stop Mr. Noel's vehicle to inspect its cracked windshield, and, after Mr. Noel fled upon the activation of Officer Adams' patrol car lights, additional probable cause existed to stop Mr. Noel for fleeing. The State further contends that Officer Adams conducted a permissible search of Mr. Noel's vehicle incident to a valid traffic stop, and, therefore, the circuit court correctly refused to suppress the evidence discovered during this search.

Before reaching the merits of this assignment of error, we first must consider the manner in which we review the denial of a motion to suppress. We previously have enunciated this standard as follows:

The standard of review of a circuit court's ruling on a motion to suppress is now well defined in this State. See State v. Farley, 192 W.Va. 247, 452 S.E.2d 50 (1994) (discussing at length the standard of review in a suppression determination). By employing a two-tier standard, we first review a circuit court's findings of fact when ruling on a motion to suppress evidence under the clearly

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2 cases
  • United States v. Davis
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit
    • May 7, 2021
    ...that the vehicle contained evidence of the offense of arrest, since that offense was reckless driving"); see also State v. Noel , 236 W.Va. 335, 779 S.E.2d 877, 885 (2015) (finding the warrantless search of the defendant's vehicle unlawful under Gant because "it was unreasonable to believe ......
  • United States v. Hudson, CRIMINAL ACTION NO. 2:19-cr-00255
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Southern District of West Virginia
    • February 14, 2020
    ...determine whether such impairment was of a nature as to obstruct the driver's vision and render the vehicle unsafe." State v. Noel, 779 S.E.2d 877, 881-82 (W. Va. 2015). Upon review of the photograph, the Court finds that the damage to the windshield was sufficient to support the traffic st......

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