When law enforcement officers face accusations of police brutality or other misconduct against citizens, they often use the defense of qualified immunity.
This concept is a federal law that allows officials to not have personal liability for damages or injuries that occur during the course of their work. However, the doctrine does state that if an official violates an individual’s constitutional rights, they cannot claim qualified immunity.
If a court accepts the defense of qualified immunity, then it is not possible for the court to make a financial award. Even in cases where the defense does not stand up, the individual rarely takes personal liability. In most cases, the government entity employing the person will pay the damages. So, qualified immunity really protects the entities rather than the individuals.
The U.S. Supreme Court developed a test for the defense. It requires showing a clearly established law that the official violated to overthrow the defense. This means that a reasonable officer would understand in the same situation that the actions were a violation of constitutional rights. The idea is to not allow protection for those who blatantly disregard rights or who are not properly aware of them. The Court wanted to reserve it for only cases where the law was unclear or something unknown among most in the field.
The use of qualified immunity is controversial. It is not always clear whether it applies, and the Supreme Court has heard multiple cases about it. Still, it is something available to officers who face accusations of brutality or rights violations.