Fires cause significant losses. In 2020 alone, California experienced an estimated overall economic loss of $19 billion, with firefighting costs reaching as high as $2.1 billion. It should, therefore, not surprise anyone when the DA and the police department invest significant time and resources to pursue alleged arson offenders.
An individual commits arson when he/she intentionally and maliciously sets or causes a fire or aids another in burning a structure, property, or forest land. The crime attracts significant legal consequences. If charged with arson, your freedom and life are at stake. Seeking legal aid from experienced attorneys is in your best interest and an opportunity to challenge the arson charges adequately. Contact the California Criminal Lawyer Group if you are under investigation or are charged with arson in Anaheim. Our attorneys are ready to assist you.
Arson As Defined in Law
According to California arson laws, it is a crime for anyone to willfully and maliciously set ablaze property, a structure, or forest land. Further, any individual who aids, procures, or offers counsel in an arson case is also criminally liable.
The DA can charge you with malicious burning, a violation of PC 451, or reckless burning, a violation of PC 452. We address both laws, with emphasis on PC 451 violations, as they are notably more consequential.
- PC 451(a) when the arson results in serious bodily injury to another
- PC 451(b) when the fire impacts an inhabited structure
- PC 451(c) when the arson involves an uninhabited structure or forest land
- PC 451(d) when a defendant sets fire on his/her property or that of another
You violate PC 452 when you present an unjustifiable and significant risk of causing fire, ignore the risk, and in doing so, you cause property, a structure, or forest land to burn.
Prosecutors bear the burden of proof. They must establish particular aspects specific to each section, as detailed above. The common elements are discussed below.
Elements Prosecutors Must Prove
PC 451’s definition of arson provides the elements needed to prove your guilt in an arson charge. A jury will only find you guilty if the prosecution proves their case beyond a reasonable doubt. In their case, prosecutors must establish the following as accurate.
- You burned or set fire to or caused the burning of property, a structure, or forest land — Setting fire to or burning through fire means using fire to damage or destroy property, a structure, or forest land partly or in its entirety. This means you can be liable for arson even if said property suffered partial damage like charring of wood, and
- You acted willfully and maliciously.
Let us look at the above elements in detail.
As the name suggests, setting fire is any activity that results in a fire. This broad definition can include playing with a lighter or lighting a match after dowsing said property with an accelerant. You are criminally liable as long as the fire caused damage.
The immediate assumption when arson is mentioned is the entire burning of a property. However, minor burning that would otherwise pass as insignificant is evidence enough to warrant an arson charge.
Acting Willfully and Maliciously
Willful action speaks to intentional, conscious, or deliberate acts. It must be clear to the jury that you acted on purpose.
On the other hand, malicious acts require intentional engagement in wrongful acts with an illegal intent. You will have committed a malicious act when you commit arson to:
- Injure another person
- Defraud an insurance provider, or
- Cause damage to another individual’s property out of annoyance, spite, revenge, jealousy, or any other reason
Note: The DA can still charge you with arson even if you do not act maliciously or your actions are not intentional. These actions are a violation of PC 452 and sum up reckless burning.
Acting recklessly is a lower standard than intentional and malicious action. You act recklessly when:
- Your actions present a significant and unjustifiable risk of causing fire
- You ignore the risks, and
- Your actions are a gross departure from what a reasonable individual would have done, given the circumstances.
Structure and Forest Land
Structures considered in arson laws range from household fixtures to elaborate architectural pieces. The household fixtures considered in arson laws are integral to a building. Architectural structures include bridges, tunnels, buildings, commercial or public tenants, or power plants.
Forest land’s definition includes the following:
- Cut-over land
- Grassland, or
- Bush-covered land
Property under arson laws comprises real estate properties, including land and personal items of value like clothing, vehicles, and paintings. The real estate land should not be forest land.
It is worth noting that arson of property excludes the burning of personal property unless you burned your property to defraud your insurance provider or another was injured in your burning building. Only then can the DA pursue arson charges.
Fighting Arson Charges
Arson convictions result in life-long implications. It is in your best interest to hire legal representation. An attorney will advise you on the possible outcomes, negotiate for lesser charges in plea deal negotiations or defend you in the trial. There are several defense strategies an attorney can employ, namely,
- No willful action
- Insufficient evidence
- Arson did not cause the fire
- No intent to defraud
- A false accusation or wrongful arrest
- No one was injured
No Willful Action
You are only guilty of a PC 451 violation if the prosecution proves you intentionally and maliciously set fire to a structure, property, or forest land. Further, the DA needs proof of motive and testimony corroborating the charge.
It is not in dispute that some fires are unintentional. Further, a defendant’s actions could cause a significant risk of a fire that resulted in injury and property loss. However, carelessness or mistakes are not indicative of criminal intent.
Some examples of accidental fires include:
- An individual passing out while smoking and the cigarette causes a fire — Passing out lacks willful action.
- An intoxicated or impaired individual on a camping site sets a campfire that burns out of control — Impairment and intoxication rob an individual of the ability to make conscious choices. Therefore, if you were intoxicated or impaired, it can be argued you were incapable of comprehending and appreciating the risk.
Prosecutors face difficulties when proving intent in arson cases. In most cases, they do not have direct evidence and rely on circumstantial evidence.
Direct evidence relies on facts from reliable eyewitnesses, digital footage, or first-hand knowledge of the perpetrator’s plans, for example, an eyewitness who saw you start the fire.
Circumstantial evidence is also actual evidence only that it requires the jury to reasonably infer that a defendant is guilty. Some common examples of circumstantial evidence include:
- Computer searches on how to start a fire
- Revenge for being unjustly let go of a company
- A defendant’s troubling financial situation is used as a possible motive to commit fraud through arson
- Discovery of several gas cans or accelerants in the defendant’s home
- Video footage or eyewitness accounts of the defendant surveilling the scene on several occasions before the fire
Note: Although circumstantial evidence is open to interpretation, a case with enough circumstantial evidence is enough to result in a conviction.
Your attorney will question the link between the circumstantial evidence and your willful intent to commit arson as put forward by the prosecution. Examining the link raises doubt about your conscious action. Remember, the prosecution’s goal is to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.
No Intent to Defraud
Arson on your property requires the prosecution to prove you intended to defraud another or the insurance company. Only then can you be found guilty of arson.
If you have an insurance cover on your property, it is only logical you make a claim should you lose your property. However, some can speculate that you caused the fire to make a claim, especially if you are in a troubling financial position.
Some occurrences are accidental and need not be construed or mistaken for an intention to commit insurance fraud.
For example, Jim has a flammable paint solvent in his garage, among other paint solutions, in line with his painting job. Due to tough economic times, he has few leads and this puts him in a difficult financial position. His family, close friends, and neighbors know this. On one occasion, while working in his garage, an electrical fault causes a fire that burns down his house. Luckily he has homeowners insurance coverage and files a claim.
Neighbors can attest to Jim’s struggles, and it is easy to assume that the fire aimed to seek compensation. Further, initial investigations could conclude the presence of accelerants (the flammable solutions). These could be used as circumstantial evidence, despite the accusation being factually incorrect.
Arson Did Not Cause the Fire
Prosecutors must prove that the fire was arson, and you did it. Should they fail to provide irrefutable evidence supporting this argument, you can assert that the fire was caused by any other factor or another individual and not you.
Some common causes of fires include faulty wiring, smoking, harsh hot weather, scorching summers, and malfunctioning heating or cooking equipment. All these reasonable causes you can point out to demonstrate you did not set the fire.
False Accusation or Wrongful Arrest
Many have been wrongfully accused and subsequently convicted for crimes they did not commit because they were falsely identified. Arson suspects are no different. You can be falsely accused either maliciously or through misidentification.
You are a victim of malicious misidentification when an individual points out you, the defendant, as the perpetrator to settle a score, to gain the advantage in a custody battle, or out of jealousy. In other instances, police officers could provide your photo in a lineup presented to the eyewitnesses to identify the alleged perpetrator. In this situation, your attorney will use this defense when an officer pressures the eyewitnesses to identify a suspect while asking a leading question.
You can also be unintentionally misidentified. If the eyewitness provides a general description without specifics linking to the actual perpetrator, you could be wrongfully arrested and accused of arson should the officers and the prosecution rely on the witness’ testimony. The false accusation or wrongful arrest defense is applicable.
In both instances, a defense attorney will rely on alibi evidence showing you were not near the scene of the crime at the time the fire was started. Further, your attorney will use the opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses to demonstrate to the jury he/she is lying or had no way of ascertaining you were the perpetrator.
No One Was Injured
A witness could falsely testify to have been injured in the fire and obtain falsified medical reports supporting the accusation. The DA could, in good faith, rely on the eyewitness’ testimony to move forward with charging you for arson.
Your attorney can use expert witnesses to examine a victim’s injuries and determine the actual position. These experts’ testimony could show that the injuries were not consistent with burn injuries or not likely to have been sustained in that particular fire. This testimony will help reduce the harsher penalties you will receive if convicted of arson and another was injured.
Penalties If Convicted on Arson Charges
PC 451 violations are felony violations. The particular penalties you are likely to receive are dependent on the circumstances of the case, that is:
- The type of property affected by the fire, and
- Whether another suffered an injury
You will likely receive the following penalties if convicted of a PC 451 violation.
- 16 months, two or three years in prison for maliciously burning your property or another’s property
- Two, four, or six years in prison if the arson affected an uninhabited structure or forest land
- Three, five, or eight years in prison for causing fire on an inhabited structure or property
- Five, seven, or nine years in prison if another suffered great bodily injury in the arson case
- Additionally, you could be fined and part with up to $10,000 in fines.
Note: Great bodily injury or GB refers to substantial physical harm. Whether an injury meets the substantial threshold is a matter of fact for the jury to determine. Juries in past cases considered the following injuries as substantial.
- Broken bones
- Second-degree and third-degree burns, and
- Gunshot wounds
Less severe injuries or emotional scaring do not meet the substantial threshold. Thus it will not lead to a five, seven, or nine-year prison sentence.
The judge could also impose additional penalties that include:
- A fine of up to $50,000 or twice the amount of your expected financial gain for defrauding an insurance provider or another individual
- Registration as an arson offender for life if you are tried and convicted as an adult
- A strike on your criminal record per California’s Three Strikes Law — A first strike does not impact your current penalties. However, if arson results in a second strike, you will receive twice the prison terms issued by the judge. A third strike is punishable by 25 years to life in prison.
Particular circumstances are considered especially heinous. If so held, these circumstances warrant an enhanced penalty. The aggravating circumstances include any of the following:
- Having a prior felony conviction on your record for arson — Both PC 451 and PC 452 will be considered
- If the arson victim was a firefighter, police officer, or emergency personnel who sustained great bodily injuries
- At least two victims of the arson suffered great bodily injury
- You used a device to delay or accelerate the ignition to set the fire
Any of the above scenarios could result in an additional one to five years in prison to be served consecutively. This means you will do the added prison terms after completing the previously issued sentence.
If the court finds that you burned another’s property because of a perceived wrong committed against you by the owner of said property, you will be sentenced to a maximum term.
Courts also consider particular areas of worship, including churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques. Burning these centers with the full knowledge that they were areas of worship will result in a maximum prison term.
Further, a judge could impose a 10-year-to-life prison sentence if you maliciously set fire to a property or structure to injure another or damage an inhabited property, and the following circumstances exist.
- You have a prior arson conviction within ten years of the current conviction.
- More than five structures were damaged.
- The total property loss value, including the cost incurred to contain and extinguish the fire, amounts to more than $5.65 Million.
Additional Consequences of a Conviction on Arson Charges
Prison time and fines are not the only consequences you have to consider. Convictions on arson charges have negative implications for non-citizens and gun rights.
Arson is a crime of moral turpitude. It follows that a conviction for non-citizens results in deportation to the country of origin and is marked as inadmissible. This means they will be denied re-entry into the country.
The law prohibits gun ownership or access to felons. PC 451 violations are felonies. Therefore, the state will forfeit your guns, and you will be denied the right to acquire or possess a firearm. Should you be found to have one, you will violate the law, and you could face criminal prosecution under PC 29800.
Offenses Related to Arson
Particular crimes are closely associated with arson. The DA could add them to your charge sheet or opt to charge instead of pursuing arson charges. The circumstances of the case will inform their choice.
Reckless burning is an offense under PC 452. This offense is a misdemeanor violation resulting in less harsh penalties than arson. Your attorney could negotiate with the DA in a plea deal to see you plead guilty for reckless burning instead of arson.
The offense is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and a jail sentence not exceeding six months.
Killing another with malice aforethought is a crime under PC 187 known as first-degree murder. PC 187 violations include premeditated killings and those committed while committing serious offenses, including robbery, carjacking, arson, and rape.
Malice refers to the intention of killing another. It can be express or implied. The DA has to prove the following to secure a murder conviction.
- The killing was a consequence of an intentional act
- Your actions were dangerous to human life
- You knew the risk posed to another’s life, and you acted with conscious disregard for human life.
First-degree murder is punishable by a prison sentence of 25 years to life.
Trespass is a PC 602 violation. Any individual who accesses and remains on another’s property without authority to do so violates PC 602.
It must be clear that:
- You entered another person’s property.
- You intended to interfere with the owner’s right on the property — Damaging the property is interfering with the owner’s property rights.
- You interfered with the property rights of the owner.
Setting fire to another’s property shows intent to cause damage. If you succeed in causing a fire, you will have interfered with the owner’s rights on the property. Thus, you will be liable for trespass.
Trespass can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. Arson charges can also be filed as infractions.
Misdemeanor violations are punishable by probation of up to six months in jail and/or a fine not exceeding $1,000.
Felony convictions result in a jail sentence of 16 months, two or three years, and fines of up to $2,000.
Contact a Defense Attorney Near Me
Arson is a serious offense. Should you face arson charges, it is in your best interest to retain the services of a skilled, dedicated criminal defense attorney soonest. Their assistance is pivotal in negotiating for lesser charges, defending you in a trial, in which case your sentence could be reduced, or having your charges dismissed. At California Criminal Lawyer Group, we are keen on ensuring our Anaheim clients receive the best representation. So contact us today at 714-766-0965 for an initial, free consultation.