On May 21, 2012, Barbara Alice Mahaffey died of colon cancer in her home in Vernal, Utah. It was 12:35 AM, and her husband Ben and a friend who was also an EMT were at her side. Within ten minutes, a hospice worker and a mortician were present to attend to the remains… along with Vernal police officers Shawn Smith and Rod Eskelson. Instead of allowing Mr. Mahaffey to grieve and attend to his wife’s body, they insisted that he stop what he was doing and help them search for any prescription painkillers his wife had been using.
The search was warrantless. No one knows how the police came to be there in the first place.
“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 damn drugs. Isn’t that something?” Mahaffey said. Mahaffey said he was treated as if he were going to sell the painkillers, which included OxyContin, oxycodone and morphine, on the street. “I had no interest in the drugs,” he said. “I’m no addict.”
Not surprisingly, Mr. Mahaffey wasn’t happy about what happened, or how he was treated. He complained. And the story gets worse.
Mr. Mahaffey says he asked Assistant Police Chief Campbell where his officers had gotten authority to enter the home without invitation and conduct a warrantless search, and was abruptly told that the Utah Controlled Substances Act granted the requisite authority.
City Manager Ken Bassett dismissed plaintiff’s concerns by saying that his own parents had recently passed away, and that although their prescription drugs had not been seized by the police, he would not have cared had the police done so. He also informed Mr. Mahaffey that he was being “overly sensitive to the actions by the police, and that the police were only acting to protect the public from the illegal use of the prescription drugs.”
The city attorney told Mahaffey that his contract with Good Shepherd Hospice waived his rights to be protected from police intrusion in his home, but no such clause in the contract appears to exist.
Chief of Police Dylan Rooks allegedly told Mr. Mahaffey that “this is a great program and we’re going to continue it,” meaning the active pursuit of drugs in the community.
After trying to have “meaningful, man-to-man” conversations with Vernal officials, and finding them “rude and condescending,” Mr. Mahaffey turned to the courts and filed a federal lawsuit against the city, police officials and the two police officers who invaded his home.
I don’t much care for attorneys, and there are far too many frivolous lawsuits clogging up our court system. In this case, however, it appears that everyone in Vernal has lost their sense of decency and humanity.
“Note the utter lack of compassion, the inability to see a grieving husband as anything other than a potential drug dealer. Note the priorities on display. The most important thing the cops had to do that day was get those drugs out of that house. Preventing someone from using Barbara Mahaffey’s pills to get high, or preventing Ben Mahaffey from–God forbid–using pain medication not prescribed to him at some point in the future, was more important than giving a widower a last moment of dignity to say goodbye to his wife of 58 years.” (Radley Balko, Huffpost)
The maraschino cherry on top of this cake of shame is found in this article from the Salt Lake Tribune, which reports that a former Vernal detective has been charged with stealing prescription medication from a couple under the guise of repeated “pill checks.” It would seem that the elected and appointed officials in Vernal would do well to cleanse the inner vessel and re-examine their priorities. Violating basic dignities at one of the most sensitive moments in a person’s life bespeaks a shameful lack of humanity; this lawsuit should act as a wakeup call for those involved, but based on the response thus far, what I’m predicting is that they will circle the wagons, deny any wrongdoing, and continue their campaign of ignoring fundamental civic rights.
The Old Wolf has spoken.