Vernal police sued for alleged deathbed intrusion
Courts • Man claims police violated rights by seizing pills shortly after wife died of cancer.
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A former Vernal resident has filed a federal lawsuit against the city, police officials and two police officers who showed up at his home shortly after his wife died of an illness to count and confiscate her prescription drugs.

Barbara Alice Proud Mahaffey died of colon cancer at the couple's home on May 21, 2012. Ben D. Mahaffey was still by his wife's side in their bedroom, saying goodbye and crying, while waiting for a mortician and hospice workers. When they arrived, two police officers showed up at the home at the same time.

According to a complaint filed in U.S. District Court, police officers Shawn Smith and Ron Eskelson did not have a warrant, but said they were there to count and confiscate Barbara Mahaffey's prescription medications.

"I was very distressed and distraught," said Ben Mahaffey, 80, a retired natural resource management professor who taught at Texas A&M and Kansas State University.

As Mahaffey tried to help the mortician prepare his wife's body to be taken from the home, the officers asked that he instead help them gather the prescription drugs in the home. The officers then proceeded to count the pills in the same room where Barbara Mahaffey's body remained.

"It was incredible," Mahaffey told The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday, adding that the officers acted as though their appearance was a normal practice. The officers later took the drugs from the home.

Neither Mahaffey nor Andrew R. Fackrell, his attorney, know why police came to the home or who alerted them to the death.

"That is one of the questions we have," Fackrell said.

Mahaffey later requested a meeting with the city's assistant chief of police about the incident. According to the complaint, Asst. Police Chief Keith Campbell told Mahaffey that Utah's Controlled Substances Act gave law officers authority to conduct such searches and "abruptly ended the conversation."

Mahaffey said the act provides no such authority.

He subsequently met with City Manager Ken Bassett and the city's attorney to discuss the case and why he believed his constitutional rights had been violated when the officers entered his home without a warrant. Mahaffey says in his complaint that Bassett shared that his own parents had recently passed away and "that although their prescription drugs had not been seized by police, he would not have cared had the police done so."

"They were all dismissive rude and condescending," said Mahaffey, who moved to St. George after his wife's death. "Most people give up at that point, but I have the resources and education, and I am not going to do that."

Bassett said Friday that he was aware of Mahaffey's suit, but that his office had not yet been officially served with the complaint.

"My preference is not to really make a comment until we receive service [of the suit]," Bassett said.

The city attorney told Mahaffey that his contract with Good Shepherd Hospice waived his rights to be protected from police intrusion in his home, according to the complaint, but Fackrell said the contract says no such thing.

"The government might be interested in trying to solve the problem of prescription drug abuse, but this is not the way to go about it," Fackrell said, especially without a warrant.

Mahaffey's complaint invokes a state law barring "intrusion upon seclusion" and violation of several constitutional rights.

"The Constitution is very dear to me," said Mahaffey, a constitutional law buff and author of hunting and fishing books. "I fought in the [Korean] War to defend it and I've watched it disappear."

brooke@sltrib.com

Tribune reporter Kimball Bennion contributed to this story.