Qualified immunity is a term used in the legal profession that refers to special rights and protections given to government officials and similar professionals. Qualified immunity prohibits public servants from being held liable for performing their jobs unless they violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights which a reasonable person would have known about.
A public servant is an individual who has been authorized by the federal or state government (or other legal entity such as a municipality) to act on its behalf. This designation may apply to elected officials, appointed officials, law enforcement officers, legislators, judges, correctional facility employees, and many others at both the state and federal levels of government. Under qualified immunity laws, public servants cannot be sued for good faith acts.
Some examples of qualified immunity include a police officer is prohibited from being sued for shooting at a fleeing suspect who may have been armed but was not pointing the gun at the officer. Similarly, public school teacher is typically shielded from liability if they use physical punishment to discipline a student as authorized by their school's principal.
In both cases, qualified immunity protects government officials from civil litigation which might hold them responsible for errors in judgment made during the performance of job duties. However, this protection only extends to acts performed within the scope of an official's employment and does not prevent criminal prosecution due to the same or similar actions.
Qualified immunity seeks to protect public servants from intense scrutiny and potential liability which might deter them from performing their jobs effectively. As an extension of this idea, qualified immunity also encourages public participation in government by ensuring that voters are not discouraged from serving the public because they may be held personally responsible for mistakes made during the course of carrying out official duties.
A common argument against qualified immunity is that it holds officials to different standards than ordinary citizens, which creates a double standard in civil rights under the law. Additionally, critics charge that this leniency also devalues constitutional protections assigned to all individuals (including government professionals) and leaves room for potential abuse of power by those who are shielded by it.
Qualified immunity shields public officials from civil liability for actions taken during the course of their service. Absolute immunity is a more extensive form of protection that prevents criminal prosecution entirely, not just civil lawsuits. An example of an individual with absolute immunity would be a testifying witness in a federal courtroom—they cannot be charged or penalized for anything they say that is related to their testimony under any circumstances.