No right to privacy: Virginia court overturns ruling for napping defendant

The Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable search and seizure — but a Virginia appeals court says not all defendants are entitled to that protection.

Melvin Noaks was indicted for drug possession in Virginia’s Wise County after a sheriff’s deputy found him, apparently intoxicated, sleeping with his head on the table in a woman’s apartment. The deputy noticed a black container on a table, near where Noaks was sleeping, in the vicinity of a young child who was playing.

Prosecutors said the container contained methamphetamine.

After Noaks was in custody, another deputy noticed “the window was now open with the curtains fluttering,” and a pill bottle was found on the ground, outside the second-story window. That bottle had Noaks’ name on it, and also had meth inside it.

The person whose name was on the apartment lease wasn’t home at the time, and the sheriff’s office never got a search warrant.

Noaks’ attorney filed a motion to suppress, saying the search violated the expectation of privacy guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment.

The Wise County Circuit Court Judge agreed, saying Noaks could expect privacy while napping at a friend’s house. The judge ruled jurors wouldn’t be allowed to see or hear any evidence discovered as a result of the entry and search of the apartment, including the contents of the pill bottle.

Virginia’s Office of the Attorney General appealed, saying the Fourth Amendment provides “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”

A three-judge panel with the Court of Appeals of Virginia overturned the trial judge’s ruling to suppress the evidence, saying the rationale wasn’t supported.

“The record simply does not support the trial court’s characterization that Noaks was
Caudill’s friend who had sought and been granted permission to sleep in the apartment during
the day. The record contains no direct evidence that Noaks knew Caudill, that Caudill had
invited Noaks to the apartment, that Noaks and Caudill were friends, or that Caudill was even
aware that Noaks was present in the apartment,” the court wrote.

“The record fails to establish that Noaks had a sufficient expectation of privacy in (the woman’s) apartment to allow him to assert Fourth Amendment protection,” related to the search.

The Court of Appeals reversed the Wise County judge’s ruling to suppress the evidence, allowing prosecutors to present it when Noaks goes on trial.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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