What is Arson in California?
Arson charges are quite serious in California and can carry heavy penalties. As opposed to regular vandalism, arson is defined by Penal Code 451 PC as the willful and malicious setting of fire to a structure, piece of property, or forest land. If you've been charged with arson, this page will provide you with essential information you should know about those charges, including potential penalties and defenses.
Types of Arson Charges
There are several different types of arson charges you may receive depending on the circumstances.
According to Penal Code 451.5 PC, aggravated arson is defined as any arson carried out with the intent to injure one or more people and damage property under circumstances that are likely to injure one or more people, or to damage one or more structures and inhabited dwellings.
It still involves setting fire to property, but it's distinguished for its scale and intent to cause bodily harm. Other specifics include:
- Intent to damage or destroy five or more inhabited structures OR
- The fire caused property damage and other losses that exceed $8.3 million. This can include the cost of fire suppression
Note that in the eyes of the law, “inhabited” means that someone either lives there or is present. They can not be present and still count as the inhabitants of the building if the structure is their permanent residence.
Arson with Great Bodily Injury
California Penal Code 451 distinguishes arson with the addition of great bodily injury as a separate crime. A defendant may be convicted if:
- The defendant set fire to or burned property, a structure or forest land AND
- They acted willfully and maliciously AND
- The fire they set caused great bodily injury to another person
Any great bodily injury is a significant or substantial physical injury, possibly including disfigurement or scarring.
Arson of Inhabited Structure or Property
California Penal Code 451 (b) defines this type of arson separately as well. It's very similar to the above arson definition, but instead focuses on fire burning an inhabited structure or inhabited property without injuring another person.
Simple arson is, according to California Penal Code 451 (c-d), a crime where the defendant:
- Sets fire to or burned a property, structure, or forest land AND
- Acted willfully and maliciously
It's the simplest version of this crime and is normally charged against the defendant if there isn't a lot of damage done to the structure or property in question, and if there isn't any serious bodily injury or harm done to another person.
There's a separate crime for attempting arson even if the damage is not successful. California Penal Code 455 states that a defendant is guilty of this crime if they acted willfully and maliciously and attempted to set fire to a property, structure, or forest land.
Penal Code 452 PC is a statute that describes reckless burning, which is a separate crime from arson. Arson is at least partially defined by willful and malicious intent to set fire to and damage people or property.
Reckless burning, on the other hand, is not done maliciously or necessarily willfully. But it is done without a responsible accounting of the consequences of starting a fire in certain circumstances.
Arson: Possible Penalties
Most arson charges are counted as felonies as opposed to misdemeanors or infractions. Thus, penalties are quite high in California, including imprisonment in state prison for up to 9 years, along with fees.
Defenses Against Arson Charges
A knowledgeable defense attorney can help you set up multiple defenses against arson charges.
No Willful Act Occurred
Remember, arson requires willful and malicious intent to qualify and for a conviction. If the defense is able to prove that there was no intent involved in the burning, the crime cannot count as arson. For example, a chain can come loose from a truck and cause sparks, accidentally setting fire to a building or forest. While the truck owner might have negligently maintained their truck, the driver cannot be charged with arson since they did not act willfully or maliciously.
Intentional Fire Not Arson
In some cases, a destructive fire that was intentionally started is still not arson. Consider the following scenario: you rent a cabin that is heated by a wood stove. You intentionally start a fire in the wood stove but because of a malfunction, sparks fly out the chimney and ignite the roof of the cabin next door, burning it to the ground. Here, you intentionally started a fire that burned the cabin next door, but you did not do so maliciously. Lawfu acts with unintended or unexpected results are not arson.
Get an Arson Defense Attorney
The Law Office of Peter James Chambers is your best bet at initiating an effective defense against arson charges, no matter which type they may be. Call or email and we'll set you up with a free consultation to get started on your case.