Assessing the Legacy of Alton Sterling this Easter Season

Memorial wall for Alton Sterling
By Maina Kiai , CC BY 2.0

For many, Easter Season is a time for reflection and introspection. From that vantage point, it is an ideal time to consider the life and legacy of the late Alton Sterling, a man never before memorialized in constitutional terms. To reduce Sterling to a symbol of excessive force or, protest moment, is an oversimplification of a life and legacy that is anything but simple. Long before Sterling entered this world, the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified (in 1791). The amendment has been interpreted as a boundary line between citizens and government?as protection against unreasonable governmental intrusions into private areas and things. 

Sterling likely believed the words in the amendment when he left home that dreadful 2016 day. Like so many of us, Sterling probably thought he could trust that he had a right “to be secure” in his person, “house, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures”  and that warrants would not be issued in absence of “probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” After all, these words are not from the inside of a fortune cookie. They appear in the United States Constitution. 

As Sterling stood outside the Triple S Food Mart selling videos, officers came without a warrant. Whether they had probable cause or acted reasonably, for purposes of a Fourth Amendment analysis, is not the product of formulas. These calls are subjective and, often, as they are made, great deference is given to law enforcement. Typically, the views of the accused escape consideration as Fourth Amendment challenges play out in state and federal courts all across the country. Sterling’s encounter with the government (in the form of local law enforcement) was brief. His life was taken in a matter of minutes. With the Fourth Amendment on public display, no official finding ever deemed the search or seizure to have violated the Fourth Amendment. Ironically though, a multi-million-dollar wrongful death settlement was paid to Sterling’s family, the survivors of a man who the law said had not been wronged.  

The same Fourth Amendment that failed to protect Sterling was on the books when people took to Baton Rouge streets to peacefully protest the unprovoked and excessive violence used against Sterling. Many suffered illegal and unreasonable searches and seizures.The constitutional abuses became public when the District Attorney dropped many of the charges, opting, in the mass incarceration capital of the world, not to prosecute most of the arrested protestors. Many of these people, like the Sterling family, received settlements. Other protestors decided to sue. Their March 2023 trial came to an abrupt end when testimony and evidence revealed that law enforcement arrested protesters because they disagreed with their message and/or without probable cause. 

In this instance also, these unjustified searches and seizures happened while the Fourth Amendment sat prominently in public view. Recently, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships created and advertised the Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention (TVTP) Grant Program. These TVTP grants supposedly target violence and terrorism, but they are rooted in the failed countering violent extremism framework. They use “indicators” of radicalization that are fundamentally flawed and based on stereotypes and criminalization of constitutionally protected activities. These “indicators” have been debunked by both external research and the government’s own audits

Historically Black Colleges and University (HBCU) campuses, presumably because of the recent influx of bomb threats on their campuses, are among the desired recipients of the TPTV grants. Ominously, the TPTV grant program has found its way to a Baton Rouge HBCU, only steps away from where Sterling’s fatal collision with the Fourth Amendment occurred. TVTP potentially positions people for the type of Fourth Amendment abuses discussed herein.  

Like Christ, Sterling’s legacy is complex. Alton Sterling’s legacy is more than that of an untimely or unjustified death, a protest or a settlement. It is the clarion call to the nation that constitutional protections are slipping away as fast as he did. Because of the way courts are interpreting the Fourth Amendment, the amendment is to us today what it was to Sterling when he needed yesterday?a hollow promise. Honoring Alton’s Sterling means recognizing his overlooked contribution to constitutional study and demanding back from the government what it took from him?the precious right to privacy, the right to be let alone and the right to be safe from unreasonable searches and seizures. 

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