Barbara Alice Mahaffey, an elderly resident of Vernal, Utah, died at home of colon cancer on May 21 as her husband of 58 years stood at her side. The death of his long-time spouse was bad enough, but what came next has Ben Mahaffey furious -- and heading to court.
"I was holding her hand and saying goodbye when all the intrusion happened," he told the Deseret News.
According to Mahaffey, his wife died at 12:35am with him and an EMT at her side. About 10 minutes later, a mortician and hospice worker arrived, accompanied by police. Mahaffey says he doesn't know how police came to be there, but that they treated him as if he were going to sell the drug on the street.
His wife had prescriptions for Oxycontin, oxycodone, and morphine. Such heavy-duty opiates are commonly used by people in end-stage cancer. They are also highly sought after by people who are self-medicating, using them for recreational purposes, or addicted to them.
"I was indignant to think you can't even have a private moment. All these people were there and they're not concerned about her or me. They're concerned about the damned drugs. Isn't that something?" he said. "I had no interest in those drugs. I'm no addict."
According to the lawsuit, Mahaffey asked Vernal city officials and police leaders how they could search his home without a warrant and was told that they could do so under the Utah Controlled Substances Act. The lawsuit also claims that city manager Ken Bassett pooh-poohed his concerns, saying he was being "overly sensitive" and that police were just trying to protect the public from diverted prescription drugs. Mahaffey described city officials as "rude" and "condescending."
His attorney, Andrew Fackrell, told the Deseret News the warrantless search was both unlawful and uncalled for. There is nothing in the state's drug law that permits entering homes to search for prescription drugs without a warrant, he said.
"I don't believe the public would intend for the government to be rummaging through your cupboards while your wife is lying in the next room being prepared to be taken to her final resting place," Fackrell said. "That's an extraordinary invasion of privacy."
Fackrell added that it is apparently common practice for Vernal police to search for prescription drugs without a warrant after someone dies, but that it is done selectively. While some cities have prescription drug "take back" programs, he said, the Vernal police approach takes that to "an absurd level."
Mahaffey said he was concerned about eroding rights.
"The whole thing, when think about it after the fact, is so stupid," he said. "My basic motivation was 'Gee, I don't want this to happen to other people.'"
The lawsuit names the city of Vernal, city manager Bassett, and four members of the Vernal Police. It alleges the action by police violated Fourth Amendment rights to be free of unwarranted search and seizure and 14th Amendment rights to equal protection under the law.
The city and the individual plaintiffs have not publicly commented on the lawsuit.