Arson is a property crime that continues to raise serious concerns on a global scale. This crime often results in not only property loss but also injuries or fatalities. According to the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, setting fire motives is often classified under revenge, excitement, vandalism, profit, extremism, and crime concealment.

If you are accused of committing the arson’s crime in California, the violation may be charged as a felony or misdemeanor. Depending on different factors such as the extent of damage, the worth of a property, and the crime’s intentions, the penalties can range from steep fines to spending years behind bars.

Our seasoned California Criminal Lawyer Group defense team can help you challenge the charge to have the case dropped or ensure you get a fair judgment. Irrespective of how bad the situation looks, we know what it takes to protect your best interests.

What is Arson?

Traditionally, arson in California was defined as any crime that involved the burning of a nearby property, dwelling, or home of another person. Criminal charges were filed to protect residents from possible injuries or deaths caused by their burned properties while they were still inside.

Arson laws have since expanded, and they currently encompass the burning of any kind of property. An arsonist can also be charged for burning land, buildings, or even personal property.

The general definition of the crime of arson is the deliberate and malicious charring or burning of property. Even though most arson crimes involve burning buildings, a person can still be charged for setting fire to a boat or public property, such as a forest. The possibility of a crime leading to other people's injuries or deaths makes arson statutes classify arson as a felony.

Types of Arson

In California, deliberately and maliciously starting a fire arson is a serious offense that carries harsh penalties.

This crime falls into two main categories:

  • Reckless burning
  • Malicious arson

Reckless burning is typically considered a lesser crime than malicious arson, although you cannot take either offense lightly. Irrespective of the type of arson you are accused of, your chances of making things work in your favor will highly depend on how fast you can contact our criminal defense team.

Malicious Arson and Reckless Burning Laws in California

Under California's arson laws, setting fire to forest land, a building, or property is a grave legal offense. Whether you start the fire maliciously, recklessly, or willingly will help determine whether you will be charged under Reckless Burning – Penal Code 452 PC or, Arson – Penal Code 451 PC.

Reckless Burning – Penal Code 452 PC

If you intentionally cause a fire, you will be charged for violating Penal Code 451 PC. If you unintentionally cause a fire, you are likely to be charged under Penal Code 452 PC.

Two crucial elements define this Penal Code "reckless burning":

  • Confirmation that you burned a property, forest land or property
  • You committed this crime recklessly and unintentionally.

In this context, the term "reckless means you knowingly participated in an action that can present a significant risk of starting a fire. By doing so, your actions fail to portray how a reasonable person would react in the same situation. Note that recklessness does not imply negligence or carelessness. If the cause of the fire was purely accidental, then it was not caused by recklessness.

For instance, if it slips your mind to turn off the stove in your apartment, and this causes a fire, the incident will be deemed accidental. Whereas, a fire that starts because you threw your cigarette into a dry ditch is deemed an act of recklessness.

Arson – Penal Code 451 PC

 "Malicious arson" or Penal Code 451 PC is when you deliberately set a property, structure, or forest on fire.

Two key elements also define this crime:

  • Confirmation that you started a fire and burned property, a forest, or structure
  • You committed the crime maliciously and willingly.

Based on California laws, arson is when you damage or destroy something with fire. One is still bound to face charges whether a property, structure, or forest is damaged slightly, partially, or completely.

Note that the term structure is broad, and it includes a whole array of things such as buildings, tents, bridges, etc. The term property refers to different personal belongings, including clothing, furniture pieces, and cars that belong to another person. Burning your personal property is not a crime unless you intend to commit fraud or your actions harm other people or their property. Forests refer to grasslands, land covered by bush or woodland areas.

If you willfully, maliciously, or intentionally start a fire to cause injury or property damage, you will be charged under the malicious arson Penal Code.

For instance, if you find out that your spouse is cheating and set their car on fire as an act of revenge, you will have purposefully caused property damage. This means you acted in violation of Penal Code 451 PC.

Elements of Arson

For an alleged offender to be prosecuted, a prosecutor can use the following elements to prove guilt. The elements include:

  1. Intention/ Motive

As aforementioned, arson is when a person maliciously burns a property that belongs to someone else. In case the property in question is burned accidentally, then this cannot be deemed a crime of arson. Even though the prosecutor bears the burden of proof, it is unnecessary to specify how you planned to start a fire and burn or damage property. A conviction can be made if a prosecutor can demonstrate circumstances that show you had a motive to commit the offense.

There are six motive classifications:

  • Vandalism - The malicious or mischievous act of starting a fire to damage property
  • Excitement – Starting a fire for thrill-seeking reasons such as attention or recognition. In rare cases, arsonists have started fires for sexual gratification.
  • Revenge – This is when a fire is started as retaliation for a perceived or actual injustice committed against the perpetrator. It is common for such a motive to end in deadly consequences.
  • Crime Concealment – This is when one sets a property, building, or land on fire intending to conceal another crime such as burglary, murder, or documents and records that implicate certain wrongdoing.
  • Profit – Setting a property on fire for material or monetary gain. This includes crimes committed to escape financial obligations, commit insurance fraud, eliminate business competition, or even increase property value.
  • Extremism – Extremists typically commit arson to further religious, social, or political causes. Such crimes are often committed by groups, although some fire setters work alone. Fires caused by extremism are classified into two categories: civil disturbance or riot and terrorism.
  1. Recklessness

Acts of carelessness can also get you charged with reckless burning in California. If your irresponsible or "reckless" actions lead to a fire that causes property damage, injuries, or death, you will likely face some harsh penalties.

  1. Direct or Indirect

Directly setting fire to a property through malicious actions can certainly get you convicted of arson. You can also face charges for actions that indirectly cause a fire. For instance, one can set fire to a property indirectly through reckless actions. Whether an incident happened because of your direct or indirect actions, you are still likely to face the law.

  1. Fire or Explosion

California arson laws cover not only fires but also explosions. If an explosive force is used to cause damage, one can also be found guilty of arson. In this case, you will still face charges even if the damage is caused by explosion debris and not the fire.

  1. Property Damage

Before you are convicted of committing arson, the prosecutor needs to prove that your actions caused damage to someone else's property. This means no arson occurred if nothing was damaged and no one was injured. However, you may end up in court even if a fire lasted for a short duration and caused minimal damage. The duration of a fire or the extent of damage caused does not matter.

  1. Property You Own

The majority of arson crimes involve property that does not belong to the defendant. However, setting fire on your property can also attract arson charges if your actions had fraudulent intentions or caused damage to another person's property.

Arson-Related Offenses

It is common for arson charges to tag along with other criminal charges. In the state of California, offenses typically charged alongside arson charges include:

  1. Insurance Fraud

If you burn down your property, this will not necessarily be considered arson. However, when you set your home, car, or other property on fire intending to collect money from your insurance provider, you will be found guilty of committing insurance fraud.

  1. Trespass

California's Penal Code 602 outlines trespassing laws and deems it illegal to set foot on another person's home or property without obtaining permission. If you unlawfully accessed the land or property where a fire was set and intentionally or recklessly started a fire, you may also be charged with trespass.

  1. Burglary

California's Penal Code 459 outlines burglary law and makes it unlawful to enter a property or building to break the law once inside. If you break into a building or property and then set it on fire, you may be charged with both burglary and arson.

  1. First-Degree Murder

In California, first-degree murder is committed if someone gets killed during a fire or in the attempts to start a fire. You will be charged with first-degree murder, whether your motive was to kill them or not. This is a serious felony that typically attracts harsh penalties. If you are found guilty of malicious arson in conjunction with first-degree murder, you may receive a death penalty or life imprisonment without parole.

Arson Penalties and Sentencing in California

The penalties you may incur for committing arson in California will depend on several factors, including:

  • Whether the chargers fall under malicious arson -Penal Code 451 PC or reckless burning-Penal Code 452 PC
  • The value and nature of property burned
  • Whether arson lead to the injuries or death of another person
  • Results of a psychiatric evaluation if the court orders one

Repercussions for Malicious Arson

Malicious arson in California is considered a felony punishable by sentencing a perpetrator in the California state prison. A crime committed on personal property for fraudulent reasons can attract three years, two years, or 16 months of jail time. If you are found guilty for setting forest land or a structure on fire, you may serve 6, 4, or 2 years behind bars. Arson that leads to bodily harm may attract 5, 7, or 9 years in jail, while malicious arson that causes the damage of an inhabited property or structure can leave a defendant serving 3, 5, or 8 years of incarceration.

Additional Penalties

In California, arson charges are not separated into degrees. Instead, the crime is punishable, depending on whether you get a misdemeanor or felony charge. If charged with willful arson, sentencing may include a fine of $10,000 and a possible extra fine of not more than $50,000. If one is found guilty of starting a fire for monetary gain, this can also attract additional fines. All convictions typically leave a strike on an offender's criminal record under California's Three Strikes Law.

Repercussions for Reckless Burning

When one is charged under California's Penal Code 452 PC, the crime is often considered a misdemeanor offense. However, there is a 50/50 probability of the offense either being charged as a felony or misdemeanor if the property set on fire is forestland or a structure. In this case, the crime is considered a "wobbler" offense, and various aspects will be used to determine the best course of action.

Sentencing and Additional Penalties

If the court charges the offense as a misdemeanor, you risk spending a maximum of 6 months in county jail. Additionally, a fine of not more than $1,000 may be imposed.

"Wobbler" reckless burning may attract between 6 months and 1-year incarceration in county jail if the courts still charge the offense as a misdemeanor. If a defendant gets a felony sentence, this can attract 6, 4, 3, or 2 years behind bars in the California state prison.

Aggravated Arson

Certain circumstances increase the risk of being charged with "aggravated" arson.

They include:

  • A history of being convicted under Penal Code 452 PC or Penal Code 451 PC
  • The use of a device to either speed up or delay the start of a fire
  • Injuries of more than one person because of the fire
  • Damage of more than one property or structure because of a fire
  • Injury of emergency workers such as police officers or firefighters

Aggravating factors that attract hasher or extra penalties include:

  • Starting a fire in direct retaliation to the owner of a property
  • Setting a place of worship on fire.
  • Having a past arson sentence within the previous ten years

Arson Offender Registration

If found guilty of aggravated arson, malicious arson, or even attempted malicious arson and end up behind bars for ten years or more, there are additional consequences you may face. First, you must register as an arson offender. Secondly, you have to inform the local law enforcement about your whereabouts continually.

Even if you are registered as a convicted arson offender, all is not lost. Our defense team can help you get a certificate of rehabilitation. After this, the law will not require you to register.

Legal Defenses for Arson

In any case, the prosecution bears the burden of proof. This means there must be evidence that clearly shows that the defendant indeed committed a crime. For one to be convicted of malicious arson, the prosecution is tasked with proving that a defendant committed the crime "willfully" or "maliciously" with the aim of annoying, defrauding, or injuring another person.

With an experienced attorney in your corner, even the gravest charges can be defended successfully.

Here are three legal defenses that may be used during an arson case.

  1. The Fire Was an Accident

In the majority of cases, the defense is centered on explaining the fire was an accident. Arguing that the fire’s cause was an accident and not malicious intent can reduce the risk of an offender being charged under Penal Code 451 PC. Furthermore, the consequences for reckless burning under PC 452 tend to be somewhat lenient.

For the DA to prove you started a fire in California with willful intent, documented evidence, proof of motive, or corroborating testimonials must be tabled before you are convicted.

In some instances, a fire is started unintentionally and not out of recklessness or malicious intentions. For example, the defendant passed out when smoking, which led to a fire or an intoxicated individual, letting a campfire burn out of control. The defense can argue that they were not in the right mental state to appreciate or understand the impending risk.

  1. Insufficient Evidence

If the prosecution lacks circumstantial or direct evidence, proving the intent behind starting a fire is nearly impossible.

This includes evidence such as:

  • Proof that you actively conducted online research to know how to set a property on fire surreptitiously
  • Proof that you had the motive to commit the crime
  • Evidence that shows your intention to revenge
  • Tangible evidence in your possession such as gasoline containers
  • Testimonials from someone who saw you fleeing from the scene moments before the fire
  1. Mistaken Identity

Cases of mistaken identity are not rare. It is not alien for one to be wrongfully arrested and charged with arson. In California, one of the most common causes of wrongful arson charges is when a witness mistakenly identifies you as the guilty party who started a fire.

You can also end up getting accused if the items found on a crime scene are yours, although someone else used them to start the fire and pin the crime on you. Irrespective of reasons you are falsely accused, a seasoned defense lawyer in San Jose can table arguments to convince the judge and jury of your innocence.

California Statute Of Limitations – Does The District Attorney Have a Time Limit To File a Case Against Me?

In most cases, there are no delays in filing criminal charges. This makes it imperative for you to consult with a criminal lawyer specializing in arson cases when you are accused of committing a crime. For a misdemeanor charge, the Statute of Limitations states that the DA must file charges within one year from your arrest date.

The prosecutor's office may fail to file charges promptly for a variety of reasons. Even so, you are still not off the loop unless one year has gone by, or the DA's office has formally dropped the charges filed against you.

For felony charges, things are a bit different. Because of the danger posed by malicious intentions to use fire to destroy property or injure people, such a crime often carries harsher penalties. Typically, the time limit for the DA to file charges is three years from your arrest date. Depending on the fine details of the crime committed, there could be certain exceptions.

For instance, the time limit for filing fraud charges is four years from when the crime was discovered. Arson cases that involve serious crimes such as murder are not subject to the Statute of Limitations. For this reason, it is not unfamiliar for cold cases to be filed years or decades after an arrest.

Find a California Criminal Lawyer Near Me

Fighting off any criminal charge in San Jose can be an uphill task. When facing a criminal charge as serious as malicious arson, the stakes are high, and you cannot afford to take any chances. If convicted, you risk spending a substantial amount of time behind bars, paying hefty fines, or both. You need seasoned experts who can help you fully understand the ramifications of the charges you face and defend you to ensure the best possible outcome is achieved. We at California Criminal Lawyer Group have the knowledge, experience, and resources to offer just the help you need. Call us today at 408-622-0204 to get an in-depth assessment of your case.