On Jan. 7, 1980, Natalio Alamillo severed both his hands while working on a punch press at Federal Clearing Die Casting Co. in Chicago.
Two years earlier and a thousand miles away, Samuel Storey had been fired from his job at Sarasota Concrete Co. in Florida.
Each event led to an inspection of the work site in question by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and each inspection was authorized by a warrant that later was held to be invalid.
The litigation that has flowed from those two inspections should define eventually just how much protection businesses have against such invalid warrants.
Congress never intended OSHA inspectors to get warrants at all, but in 1978 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that officials could not force themselves into factories without first getting an okay from a court.
It's now common practice for requests for such warrants to go to U.S. magistrates. The Federal Clearing and Sarasota Concrete cases suggest that those magistrates often do not ask the questions they should or do not consider details thoroughly enough before they rubber-stamp the OSHA applications.
The Alamillo accident immediately became big news in Chicago, but not because of the injury itself but because of the near-miraculous medical attention the victim received: both hands were reattached by a team of microsurgeons in a marathon 23-hour operation. ith little but the newspaper stories to go on--and no details of the accident or suggestion that safety violations were involved--OSHA got the inspection warrant that later was held to be invalid.
Storey's tale was much less dramatic. After being fired, he filed a complaint with OSHA alleging that the concrete company did not maintain its concrete mixer trucks properly. That charge was not enough to support a warrant for an investigation of the entire facility, later rulings held.
But, of course, it took months of court fighting to test the warrants. By then, the inspectors had visited the plants and collected evidence of violations. The legal question was--and still is--what to do with that evidence.
In each case, an administrative law judge at the Labor Department ruled that none of the evidence gathered in an invalid search would be used against the companies, and in effect wiped out OSHA's entire case.
The Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (the appeals forum for companies fighting OSHA citations) agreed with that position.
But within a week of each other in December, two U.S. Courts of Appeal handed down conflicting rulings on the matter.
The court of Atlanta, in the Sarasota Concrete case, upheld unequivocally OSHRC's authority to exclude evidence from searches under invalid warrants. "The commission is in a good position to determine if the exclusionary sanction is an appropriate enforcement mechanism in its own proceedings" because "the commission may claim a special expertise in its understanding of OSHA procedures and practice," Judge James C. Hill explained.
Diametrically opposed, the court in Chicago said the review commission could not decide the matter, and that the evidence should be admitted because the OSHA inspectors in good faith believed at the time they entered the Federal Clearing plant that the warrant they were using was valid.
The OSHA skirmish is part of a major battle going on in the legal community over what should happen when policemen do things, then later it is decided these things go beyond their constitutional authority, whether it be applying too much pressure in questioning a suspect or conducting an unlawful search.
The rule today is that the fruits of the unlawful activity are excluded from any later trial, but that rule is under severe attack. On Oct. 12, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that may lead to a "good-faith exception" to the exclusionary rule--a policy that courts can use evidence seized by officials who thought they were acting lawfully, even if it later turns out that their actions were unauthorized because, as in the OSHA cases, the warrant was issued with too little cause.
The Supreme Court never has dictated that the exclusionary rule should be followed in civil cases; that was a key point to the judges in the Federal Clearing case, who said the evidence obtained with an invalid warrant should be used nevertheless to prosecute the company.
But there is more involved in law cases than the law. And the specific facts of the two cases vary dramatically. The concrete-mixer case that the Atlanta judges decided OSHA could not prosecute involved 12 random violations of technical rules, violations the agency itself called "nonserious." The die-casting case that the Chicago judges said should go forward involves charges of 16 serious violations, many of which the inspectors termed repeated and willful. The suggested fine for the die-casting company was a substantial $34,500.
That kind of factual difference is not supposed to influence judges, but judges are human and they can react emotionally to facts. When the conflict is finally settled and U.S. business given a uniform national rule to govern what happens to evidence obtained by OSHA inspectors with invalid search warrants, the answer may depend on which way the question is viewed:
* Insisting that the agency not unduly harass managers who are guilty of, at most, minor infractions.
* Or, giving the agency enough leeway to catch companies that are putting their workers in imminent danger of life and limb.