Police raid home moments after elderly woman dies, to snatch her meds

Dennis Romboy with Deseret News writes that police raided a man's home as he grieved for his wife, searching for her prescription medication. According to a lawsuit he has filed, they told him that Utah's Controlled Substances Act gives them the right to conduct warrantless searches when people die.
Barbara Alice Mahaffey died of colon cancer in her bedroom last May. Ben D. Mahaffey, 80, said he was distraught and trying to make sure his wife's body would be taken to the funeral home with dignity, when he says officers insisted he help them look for the drugs. "I was holding her hand saying goodbye when all the intrusion happened," he told the Deseret News. 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.


  1. What *is* the legal status of prescription medication when someone dies? If it was obtained legally, isn’t it still legal? Doesn’t it still belong to *someone*?

    1. My grandfather told me that after his wife died a friend of hers visited and asked for her medication. The friend didn’t seem to care what my grandmother had been taking, just that it was drugs. My grandfather took the lot to a hospital pharmacy the next day for disposal.

      I suppose that quite a few drugs abandoned in that situation get misused.

  2. That’s hilarious.   When my mom died we called the hospital inquiring about what to do with the litre and a half of morphine we had in the fridge.  They told us to just dump it and throw the bottle out.

    1. Should have talked to the oncology nurses, in person. 
      Our nurses told us to *quietly* bring any unused prescriptions back to the oncology unit and the nurses would distribute them to patients that couldn’t afford them. Hell, they even got my Mom pot to try for her symptoms, in 1997. Those nurses are angels.

    2. I enjoyed the experience of Morphine (not recreationally I might add), having a litre and a half of it in my fridge would terrify me. I’d probably end up horribly addicted.

      “Maybe just a little bit before I dispose of it…”.

      1. My experience with percocet (oxycodone/paracetamol), legally prescribed, was dizziness and constipation, hardly pleasurable at all. But it was a pretty small dose; maybe that matters.

        1. I got some low dose opioids after minor surgery – I was sitting in the passenger seat of the car after taking one, and I felt very uncomfortably as if I were about to float away, because I kind of couldn’t totally feel the pressure of the chair under me.

          After that I switched to advil.

          1. I often describe mine as an ‘out of body experience’ – not literally of course, but as you say you feel floaty. I guess because it numbs everything to the extent that you literally can’t feel yourself in contact with anything, bones included.

        2. I have no idea what dosage I had for my Percocet, but half a pill made me go into a mini manic episode for 30 minutes and then I’d pass out. And the constipation, oy the constipation.

          That might be interacting weirdly with my defective brain chemistry though (manic-depressive).

  3. Can’t these guys just keep a portion of what they confiscate from dealers and addicts, or strongarm a pharmacist?

    Why they gotta harass the senior citizens at times like that to fuel their habits or supplement their incomes?

    I wonder what kind of a cut Ken Bassett gets, and what is the kickback to the mortician or the hospice worker, whichever of them alerted police that someone was about to die from cancer.

  4. Really? The cops come and look for prescription drugs when somebody dies? Is this just a Utah thing, or is it nationwide? I’m Canadian and this just seems unthinkable to me… had never heard of it occurring down south before now either…

    1. It sounds like it’s a very local thing – these particular small town cops have (illegally) given themselves special powers that they occasionally make use of to conduct illegal searches. 

    2.  It’s entirely possible that someone pissed someone else off. A lot of local law enforcement abuse is the result of people with small amounts of power using it to send the local police to harass people they don’t like.

    3. The article says that the town considers it a policy, but doesn’t enforce uniformly.

      No matter how it is enforced, if there was no warrant they were performing illegal search and seizure, and rudely.

      That act only allows for warrant-less search and seizure in cases of immediate threats to health and safety. Legally obtained prescription drugs related to unsuspicious deaths just could not possibly qualify for that.

      If the police had some tip of someone about to rob the place, or believed from some information that the gentleman intended to sell the drugs, only the former would qualify, and the threat would be the robbery, not the presence of the narcotics.

      But they can’t claim that, they already claimed that they have a city policy demanding warrantless searches based on… asking a cat or dog to interpret the Utah Controlled Substances Act.

      Goddamit Vernal officials, fire that cat or dog, taking legal advice from household pets is clearly negligent.

  5. What’s the rest of the story?  Is this such a small town that every single old person who dies is a big deal and the cops know about it?  Was someone saying that they were planning to grab her meds?  I feel like we have about half of the story here. 

    1. From the story it sounds like the local cops do this regularly (but inconsistently). It is a small town, but it also could be due to someone in the hospice system or morticians, etc. who are informing the police of deaths, as it sounds like they all showed up at exactly the same time.

  6. So, the Mormon church tries its best to paint itself as normal and not full of shit. How does it expect to do that when its Zion keeps embarrassing itself and its citizens? For shame, Utah. For effink shame.

  7. Hopefully the lawsuit also asks for proof and a documentation trail showing that every single drug and pill was logged and lawfully disposed of.

    The unannounced/no-warrant visit from police to confiscate these sort of drugs seems kinda sketchy. I wonder if one of the officers on the team had a personal habit or a side business? The city should be able to provide documentation from the raid and a paper trail showing what happened to the confiscated materials.

      1. perhaps harder to fake would be the dispatch logs. I’d want the lawsuit to show what supervisor ordered the visit, when the unit arrived and when they left. Yeah this stuff can be faked but it may require the help/assistance of people other than the surprise search team so it’s worthwhile to ask for the info anyway. 

      2. There should be a chain of custody, with sealed envelopes, signatures, and witnesses to the destruction, but yeah, that didn’t happen.

        A friend of mine grew up in a small corrupt town. A couple of cops used to shake down kids, rough them up, and take their pot. No one was ever brought into headquarters. And of course no one was going to call the police on the police.

        1. The medication is the property of the person for whom it was prescribed – upon their death the medications are the property of the next of kin.  Now, it may be true that it would be inadvisable for that person to take medications not prescribed for them, and it is also true that transferring ownership of those medications to a third party would be illegal, but it doesn’t make sense to require someone to account for belongings that belong to themselves.  This is why as a Hospice RN I explain to families that I can’t remove medications from the home after someone is deceased – I have no method for accounting for the medications.  Instead we educate families how to destroy or donate medications.  They don’t belong to me and they don’t belong to the state.  The police in this case acted far, far outside their scope, although people familiar with notable abuses of police power are not likely to be surprised.

          1. On the day before a friend’s husband died of cancer, he was in his home, waiting a transport vehicle.  The hospice nurse decided he should go to the hospice facility that day.
            Two friends and I watched as the hospice nurse did not care for a semi-conscious, flailing man but instead insisted that his wife take the time to gather up all medications, every single bottle, and destroy them, right in front of the nurse’s eyes while she completed the paperwork.

            Shouldn’t this man have some pain medication before his 40 minute trip? One of us asked.

            The nurse said, Oh, he will get pain medication when he gets to the hospice facility.

            Before those bottles were emptied and the contents mixed with dish soap, we begged the nurse to take one pain tablet and crush it and put it under the man’s tongue, as it appeared he was quite uncomfortable.

            It was a sad scene that added incredible stress and pain.   We are not a young group and we found it very odd that eliminating the possibility of prescription drug abuse trumped caring for a man in his dying hours.

          2. What you described was highly inappropriate for the nurse to do.  That’s the big thing about home-care.  We’re not in charge, the patient and family is.  Crucial difference between home care and facility based nursing.  If I heard of something like that happening, I would report them to the state.  In some states it’s the department of public health, some states have a separate nursing body.  Denying someone pain medication that is prescribed for them when it would be appropriate for them to take it equivalent to elder abuse according to…let’s see if I can remember this right…  The Elder Justice Act of 2010? I think that’s the one.

          3. Unfortunately, I’ve had to tell a hospice nurse to get stuffed before.  Not quite so bluntly, but she was full of crazy and we had her replaced by a lovely, competent, compassionate nurse.

  8. When my father in law died of pancreatic cancer we kept the meds.  After ten years and two moves, I no longer know where they are. Somewhere I have morphine in a dusty box, though.

  9. Barbara Mahaffey was an ardent genealogist who provided more than 11,000 names for temple ordinances.

    I’m outraged that the cops messed with the peaceful rest of a woman who messed with the peaceful rest of thousands of non-Mormons.

    1. You need to have what I would consider pretty weird beliefs in order to care about this. Generic atheism/agnosticism means you wouldn’t really care about them and their little baptism game. Likewise, I expect most people who are devout would consider their deity omnipotent and would also consider the Mormon’s practice to be the futile activity of misguided heathens. Only someone who sees the universe as actually containing multiple contending deities, powered by the rituals of their followers, should really be getting worked up about this. Or someone who believes in some other sort of magic, I suppose.

      1. If you think respecting other people’s beliefs in life and death because it contributes to a more tolerant society is “magic”, then abracadabra.

      2. You need to have what I would consider pretty weird beliefs in order to care about this.

        You seem to be using an awfully variant definition of ‘weird’.

      1. That it was done at all makes it illegal.  That it was done to a grieving widower makes it assholery.

  10. In my state, the pills do legally have to be disposed of, but it’s not enforced that hard.  When my stepdad passed, the first-responders who arrived did ask about and confiscate his prescription meds.  It wasn’t presented so much as being so that no one re-sold them, as that no one (namely my mom who was clearly a wreck) could use them to harm themselves.  The whole situation in that death and my mother’s response to it was already so horrific that the drug thing wasn’t really disturbing any survivors any more than they already were disturbed. 

    When my husband’s grandmother died, the hospice workers were there with us, and they just had us dump her pills down the toilet while they watched, so they could sign off that they were destroyed without having to deal with extra hassle or law enforcement (since none was already coming, as it was an expected death). 

    When my husband’s mother died, she died in a hospital, but no one asked any of us about her meds that she had at home.  So we were left with a whole lot of drugs.  We gave the couple of blood pressure pills that were identical to the ones an uninsured family member takes to him since he could use them, they weren’t dangerous, and it wouldn’t be any trouble for him or for us if he was found in possession of pills he has a legal script for.  But  all the stuff that would have been recreational type stuff, like high power pain meds,  I flushed down the toilet. I had no interest in selling or using them. If they’d been something lighter and in a smaller quantity, they might have been tempting to keep on hand for times when there’s not much the doctor can do but write you that same script and charge you a bundle for the diagnosis you didn’t need.  But a whole bunch of heavy duty drugs prescribed for someone in INTENSE pain weren’t the kind of thing we need to be prescribing our relatively healthy selves or need the worry of having in our possession, either from legal worries,worries about theft, or temptation to take something way too strong and potentially highly addictive for fun.  It felt kind of weird pouring something I knew so many folks out there would REALLY want literally down the drain, but having them around would just have been trouble. 

    1. We’ve had a certain amount of opiate pain-killers left over after surgeries, along with hydrocodone for cough control after that lung infection.
      Same thing: getting rid of it when you know someone must be out there who needs it and can’t afford it feels really weird, but sure isn’t stuff we want around. And really, there’s the whole open-package thing, which makes second-hand medication a little weird anyways.

      But we’ve kept the dog ends of some of the lower grade stuff (T3s) and that turned out to be useful more than once.

      The percocets went straight down the toilet once I was done with them though (shudder)

    2. In civilized places, the doctor suggests that the grieving spouse take a couple of those valium if they need them. In fact, we occasionally (and legally) dispensed a small quantity of controlled substances to grieving relatives of patients who had died.

    3. You never had a tooth abscess, did you? I was glad I managed to source some “too strong” stuff earlier, just for case such shit will happen – and it always seems to happen when the help is dozens of hours away.

      High-end painkillers are a must-have in every zombie apocalypse kit. You don’t know what will happen; stuff you have you can choose to not use, while you can’t choose to use something you don’t have on-hand. So until there are molecular assemblers on every desktop, the imperative is “keep it”. (If it is a solid form, keep it vacuum-packed in a freezer; due to the Arrhenius law it will slow down the degradation very significantly, keeping the things effective way past the expiration date.)

      Shit happens. Be prepared.

  11. Way to earn respect and inspire confidence in your abilities to protect your citizens Vernal PD. 


  12. Took me three attempts to get a hold of someone at their office to leave a polite complaint. Guess they have much more important things to do, like seizing old people’s medications.

  13. A story like that just undermines everything we’ve been told of late about how to properly dispose of unused prescription drugs.  Why bother to ask the public to be responsible, if they’re just going to treat those same adults like criminally- inclined children?


  14. Yeah, there’s definitely something else going on there. If it were a matter of wanting to secure the meds so that they wouldn’t be resold or abused by the survivors or other responders, the police would be more open about it. They’ve got someone in 911 dispatch or the ambulance service tipping them off. 

  15. Wow. I’m so glad that didn’t happen when my grandfather died. I can’t imagine what that would have done to my grandmother.

    I’m pretty sure my grandmother just returned the leftover emergency painkillers/sedatives to the hospice organization, which had procured them in the first place (and to whom we had to report when my grandfather used any of the meds).

  16. Hospice RN here – Hospice agencies themselves usually don’t reclaim leftover medications – this may vary state by state but there are problems with this practice including logistics, accountability, and sanitation.  In my area, we tell patients to donate the medications to the local Haitian charity, who sanitize the medications and ship them over to Haiti (keep in mind there is a global opiate shortage!).

    The actions of the police in this case are unconscionable – fun fact to keep in mind – Opiates can be flushed down the toilet without fear of polluting the water.  Alternatively you can destroy them (and any other med) by mixing it with bleach and kitty litter or coffee grounds (do this outdoors or by an open window, it’s an exothermic reaction in the case of opiates!)

    1. Thank you Patrick for doing one of the hardest jobs there is. Wow.

      Gotta say though our planet’s water sources sure don’t need more pharmaceuticals pollution. Not in freshwater sources, not in ocean waters. These contaminants are not good for animals, plants, people, etc. 




      So, good people reading this, please do if at all possible consider–within the laws that govern your region–recycling the pills through charity hospitals; or if you can’t get constituted authorities to address the needs in indigent patients, put the dang pills in the trash with the kitty litter and something nasty. 

      1. The FDA actually publishes guidelines about what medications can be flushed and which can’t be.  Opiate narcotics can be flushed because they’re chemically almost identical to a substance our own bodies produce and they break down just fine in water.  You can find the FDA guidelines here.  Basically, Opiates are OK, everything else has to be denatured in bleach and absorbed by kitty litter or coffee grounds.  http://www.fda.gov/drugs/resourcesforyou/consumers/buyingusingmedicinesafely/ensuringsafeuseofmedicine/safedisposalofmedicines/ucm186187.htm

  17. This is not unusual.  If someone dies at home, you notify law enforcement and they will send someone to the house.  Once the officer is reasonably sure that the death was from natural causes, the very next item on the list is to round up the meds.  Happened to me in Texas when my father died, although the officer was very polite and did not ransack anything.

  18. I can understand people wanting to git rid of strong medication, but flushing them down the toilet!
    Why put that stuff into the water supply?

  19. Oliver Stone recently stated to an overseas news network that American society had become “Orwellian.” This can serve as Exhibit A. We have lost all control of our police. Intimidation is the rule and common decency unheard of.

  20. he says officers insisted he help them look for the drugs

    Fifth amendment says I don’t have to talk to you. Thirteenth amendment says I don’t work for you.

    1.  And the cop says, “Stop resisting! Stop resisting!” as he electrocutes you with his taser.

  21. Not at all surprised. My mom died at home just a few days after coming home from the Hospital. We had NO help from the Hospice group in the days leading up to her death and when we called to say she had passed, they sent over a Rabbi. The Rabbi’s FIRST question upon entering the house was “where are the medications?” She even followed my sister into the BATHROOM to make sure we weren’t trying to hide anything. And then the Rabbi walked out and left behind the highly narcotic pain med pump that had been attached to my mom saying that someone else would be by to pick that up.

  22. Brought to you by the Partnership for a Drug Free America and Lou’s Home Lobotomies for Less.

  23. i guess these cops don’t dare wait in case people dispose of the medicines, they need to ensure they get their hands on them in time so they can sell them on the street.

    sounds like dirty cops with someone from 911 tipping them off whenever someone dies.  either that or callous idiots.  either way they deserve to be reprimanded.

  24. Cops are scum.

    These may be podunk cops, but NYPD just got slapped down today for their practice of rousting random non-white people on bogus trespass investigations.

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