|Barbara Mahaffey in an undated photograph|
A Utah man said police interrupted a private moment of mourning with his just-deceased wife of 58 years when they searched his house for her prescription medication without a warrant, within 10 minutes of her death.
Ben D. Mahaffey, 80, said he was distraught and trying to make sure the body of his wife, Barbara Alice Mahaffey, would be taken to the funeral home with dignity, reports Dennis Romboy at Deseret News. Instead, police officers insisted that he help them “look for the drugs.”
“I was holding her hand saying goodbye when all the intrusion happened,” Mahaffey said.
Barbara died at 12:35 a.m., with Mahaffey, a Korean War veteran, and his friend, an EMT, at her side. Police, a mortician and a hospice worker arrived at the home about 12:45 a.m., Mahaffey said; he didn’t know how police came to be there.
“I was indignant to think you can’t even have a private moment,” Mahaffey said. “All these people were there and they’re not concerned about her or me. They’re concerned about the damn drugs. Isn’t that something?”
|Ben Mahaffey: “I was indignant to think you can’t even have a private moment”|
Mahaffey said the police treated him as if he planned to sell the painkillers, including OxyContin, oxycodone and morphone, on the street. “I had no interest in the drugs,” he said. “I’m no addict.”
Mahaffey filed a federal lawsuit last week, saying police violated his Fourth and 14th Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure and for equal protection under the law.
The officers’ conduct “at the deeply intimate setting, and during a highly distressing time, added a great amount of pain and distress to an already difficult situation,” the lawsuit states.
Following the incident, Mahaffey asked Vernal city officials and police why officers would search his home without a warrant moments after his wife’s death. He said he was told the Utah Controlled Substances Act provides authority for such a search.
“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,” said Andrew Fackrell, Mahaffey’s lawyer. “That’s an extraordinary violation of privacy.”
There’s nothing in Utah law that allows police to enter a home and search for prescription drugs without a warrant, Fackrell said. Despite that fact, he said it’s apparently common practice for Vernal police to do exactly that when someone dies — but that the practice is selectively applied.
Mahaffey said he decided on the lawsuit only after trying to have “meaningful, man-to-man” conversations with Vernal city officials, but they were “rude and condescending.”