SALT LAKE CITY (CN) - As an elderly man mourned over his wife's body after she died at home, police entered without a warrant and made him help them search for her prescription drugs - even before the mortician arrived, the man claims in court.
Ben D. Mahaffey sued the city of Vernal, four police officers, including the chief and assistant chief, and the city manager, in Federal Court.
Mahaffey claims defendant Officers Shawn Smith and Rod Eskelson seized his wife's medications while he was still "in shock" at her death, and that Assistant Police Chief Keith Campbell "responded indignantly" when he complained about it.
"On or about May 21, 2012, plaintiff's wife of 58 years passed away in plaintiff's home," the complaint states.
"While awaiting the arrival of the mortician, plaintiff remained in the room with his deceased wife to say goodbye.
"A short time later the defendant police officers knocked on the door and entered plaintiff's home.
"The defendant police officers showed plaintiff no warrant and simply stated that they had come to confiscate any and all prescription medications belonging to plaintiff's wife, who had just passed on.
"Although still in shock from the passing of his wife of 58 years, and although still in need of attending to his wife's body to ensure a dignified and respectful transfer of the body from the home, defendant police officers nonetheless insisted that the plaintiff abandon his attendance to his wife's body and aid them in their search for prescription drugs.
"Although distraught, plaintiff nonetheless complied with the orders.
"Once securing the prescription drugs, the defendant officers then proceeded to inventory the prescription drugs in the same room with the body of plaintiff's wife, and record the prescriptions that had been seized.
"The defendant officers' search and seizure of the prescription drugs at this deeply intimate setting, and during this highly distressing time, added a great amount of pain and distress to an already difficult situation," the complaint states.
Mahaffey says he asked Assistant Police Chief Campbell why his officers had treated him that way: "Plaintiff asked the defendant assistant chief of police where the police department had gotten its authority to enter the home, search the home, and seize private property. Plaintiff informed the assistant chief of police that he knew of no law or statute, which would authorize the police to conduct a warrantless search of this kind.
"The defendant assistant chief of police responded indignantly that the authority had come from the Utah Controlled Substances Act and abruptly ended the conversation."
Mahaffey says he also contacted City Manager Ken Bassett, who "dismissed plaintiff's concerns by relaying the fact 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."
Bassett claims Mahaffey told him 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 complaint continues: "The city attorney's response to plaintiff's concerns was that regardless of plaintiff's concerns with the conduct of the police, plaintiff had no recourse because his contract with Good Shepard Hospice waived his rights to be protected from police intrusion into his home.
"However, plaintiff's contract with Good Shepard Hospice does not address the issue of prescription drug seizure, nor does it provide for a waiver of any rights to privacy or property following a death by the patient."
Vernal, pop. 9,089 in 2010, is 175 miles east of Salt Lake City.
Mahaffey seeks punitive damages for violations of the Fourth, Fifth and 14th Amendments, and intrusion upon seclusion.
He is represented by Andrew Fackrell, of South Jordan.
Many businesses give their employees training on how to handle complaints, as the manner in which a complaint is received may determine whether the unhappy customer files a lawsuit or not.