SALT LAKE CITY — A trial date has been set in a Utah man's lawsuit against two Vernal police officers who collected his wife's prescription drugs following her 2012 death at the couple's home.
Ben Mahaffey claims police violated his constitutional rights when they entered his home immediately after his wife's death without his consent and collected her medication for disposal. In January 2013, he sued the city of Vernal, city manager Ken Bassett, Police Chief Dylan Rooks, assistant police chief Keith Campbell, detective Shaun Smith and officer Rod Eskelson.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge David Nuffer dismissed Mahaffey's equal protection claim against all of the defendants. He also removed Bassett from the lawsuit, ruling that Mahaffey failed to show the city manager had supervisory liability for the police department's policy of collecting prescription medications after the death of hospice patients.
The judge, however, did rule that there are sufficient questions of fact to warrant a trial on Mahaffey's claims that police conducted an illegal search and seizure, and violated his due process rights.
Mahaffey's wife of 58 years, Barbara Alice Mahaffey, was under hospice care when she died from colon cancer in her bedroom on May, 21, 2012. Court records show that the hospice provider had informed the Mahaffeys beforehand that when Barbara Mahaffey died, the hospice worker would call police to the house to "count and dispose of any excess prescription medications."
That call was made, and Mahaffey also called Central Dispatch in Vernal to report that his wife had died, according to court records.
"Dispatch stated officers would arrive to assist," court records state. "Mr. Mahaffey understood (the police) would be coming."
Mr. Mahaffey additionally asserts that the scope of any possible limited consent was exceeded, because allowing the police entry into a home does not constitute consent to search a home.
–U.S. District Judge David Nuffer
What remains in dispute, however, is whether Mahaffey gave Smith and Eskelson consent to enter his home and collect his wife's unused medication.
The officers assert in court records that Mahaffey's consent was implied when he called police dispatch, held the door open for the officers, didn't object verbally to their entry into his home, and never expressly asked them to leave.
Mahaffey argues though that "simply calling the police does not constitute consent" to enter a home. He has also stated in court records that he didn't understand that the officers were entering his house to take his wife's medication.
"Mr. Mahaffey additionally asserts that the scope of any possible limited consent was exceeded, because allowing the police entry into a home does not constitute consent to search a home," Nuffer wrote in his ruling.
Smith and Eskelson say they never searched the home. Mahaffey brought his wife's prescriptions to the officers, according to the hospice worker, who testified during a deposition that she turned over the woman's liquid morphine. The hospice worker then helped the officers inventory the drugs.
"During the entire process, beginning with the requirement to gather the prescription medications, up through the counting and inventorying of the drugs, Mr. Mahaffey objected," Nuffer wrote, adding that Mahaffey never asked the officers to leave.
After counting the pills, the officers took them and left the house.
Following the incident, Mahaffey asked Vernal city officials and police administrators why officers would search his home without a warrant. He said he was told the Utah Controlled Substances Act provides authority for the search.
Nuffer noted that Vernal police do not have a written policy governing the collection of unused medication following the death of a person in hospice care. The practice, which has been in place since at least 2008, was put in place "to prevent prescription drug theft or abuse by those who know such prescriptions are in the residence, including neighbors, family members or even hospice workers," according to court records.
A five-day jury trial is scheduled to begin March 2.