Qualified immunity shields public officials from damages for civil liability so long as they did not violate an individual's "clearly established" statutory or constitutional rights.
The immunity is available to state or federal employees, including law enforcement officers, who are performing their jobs. As a result, if a state or federal employee violates an individual's federal constitutional rights, that employee is protected from liability if he or she did not violate rights spelled out by a "clearly established" law.
Why are these protections available? The goal of the immunity is to allow state and federal employees to perform their responsibilities without fear of being sued by individuals who may suffer injuries.
When can an official use qualified immunity?
The defense of qualified immunity turns on the reasonableness of the act at issue. The law asks if a "reasonable person" in the defendant's position would have known that his or her actions violated clearly established law. Whenever the answer to that question is "no," qualified immunity kicks in.
How does qualified immunity affect lawsuits?
In essence, qualified immunity gives civil servants a legal cushion. They have a margin of error "when they navigate uncharted areas at the margins of constitutional criminal law," according to the case of Tarantino v. Baker. The practical effect: Officials get sued less.
Though qualified immunity is broad, it is not meant to be an absolute protection for everything a federal or state employee might do. Even while acting in the scope of their employment, federal, state, and local officers can still be sued for intentionally violating a person's constitutional rights. The theory of qualified immunity requires that an official act in good faith and with due care.
However, whether qualified immunity prevents more lawsuits than it should is a hotly contested issue:
An open-ended topic
The legal community is split on the value of qualified immunity. Scholars opposed to qualified immunity believe holding officials liable would lead to fairer compensation for victims and better accountability of law enforcement. Others in favor of qualified immunity fear that greater official liability would reduce the government's efficiency and lead to less recognition of constitutional violations.