Anyone living in California understands fire's destructive power. Intentionally starting a fire can result in serious consequences in California, even if no one was harmed. Even if the individual didn't intend to cause any serious damage or harm, a conviction for arson is a felony and could result in jail time and expensive fines. If you have been charged with arson, talk to your experienced East Bay criminal defense attorney to understand your rights.
Willful and Malicious Arson Charges in California
Under California Penal Code §451, arson involves willfully and maliciously setting fire to or burning any structure, forest land, or property. It is also considered arson to help someone else set fire to property or tell someone to set a fire.
Reckless Arson Charges
Under California Penal Code §452, reckless arson involves causing by recklessly setting fire, burning, or causing to be burned, any structure, forest land, or property.
Recklessness does not require the person to intentionally set something on fire. Reckless generally requires showing there was a conscious disregard of the risk of fire. For example, setting off fireworks in an area where there is dry brush may be considered recklessly causing a fire or burning.
Whether a person recklessly set a fire or caused a property to be burned would generally a question for the jury to decide.
Criminal Arson Penalties
The penalties for arson in California depend on the whether the fire was started intentionally or recklessly, the type of property burned and whether anyone was injured.
Willful and Malicious Arson Penalties
Arson resulting in great bodily injury is a felony. Felony injury arson is punishable by imprisonment for five, seven, or nine years.
Arson of an inhabited structure or inhabited property is a felony punishable by imprisonment for three, five, or eight years.
Arson of a structure or forest land is a felony punishable by imprisonment for two, four, or six years.
Arson of any other property is a felony punishable by imprisonment for a minimum of 16 months, up to three years.
Reckless Arson Penalties
Unlawfully causing a fire that causes great bodily injury is a felony punishable by up to 6 years in prison.
Unlawfully causing a fire that causes an inhabited structure or inhabited property to burn is a felony punishable by up to 4 years in prison.
Unlawfully causing a fire of a structure or forest land is a felony punishable by up to 3 years in prison.
Unlawfully causing a fire of any other property is a misdemeanor.
Burning Your Own Property for Insurance Fraud
It is not considered arson to burn your own property. However, it is arson to burn your own property with the intent to defraud or there is injury to another person, or another person's structure, forest land, or property.
A property owner may try to burn their own property in order to collect insurance money on the loss. In addition to arson charges, burning property with the intent to defraud can also lead to insurance fraud charges.
For example, a homeowner had an old garage on the property. The homeowner burned down the garage to get rid of it. The homeowner would not be charged with arson. However, when burning down the garage, if the fire spread to a neighbor's property, the homeowner may be charged with arson for causing the neighbor's property to burn.
Other Penalties for Arson
In addition to criminal penalties, someone who is suspected of arson may be subject to a civil lawsuit for damages. A property owner or government agency may sue an individual for damages caused by the fire. This may even include charging the person for the cost of fighting the fire.
Defenses to Arson Charges
There may be a number of legal defenses available to charges of reckless or intentional arson. It can be a defense to charges of arson if an individual burned their own property, no other property was burned, and there was no intent to defraud. Burning your own property may violate some local safety or fire ordinances but it is generally not a crime.
Arson can be difficult to prove when it is unclear what caused the fire or who may have been responsible. The prosecutor may try and charge an individual with intentionally or maliciously starting a fire but there may be no evidence of intent. Without intent to start a fire or cause the fire to be started, the defendant may be found not guilty of arson.
Accidentally causing a fire may result in serious damage but it may not rise to the level of a crime. For example, if someone is having a barbecue on a dry day and leaves the grill unattended, flames may fall on dry grass causing a fire to spread. This may be considered negligence but it is not necessarily a crime.
Another person may have started a fire intending to frame an innocent person. Talk to your East Bay criminal defense attorney about your case if you are facing charges of arson in California.
East Bay Criminal Defense Attorney
Lynn Gorelick has more than 30 years of criminal defense experience defending her clients facing criminal charges, including arson. She understands how to approach the individual facts of each case for the greatest chance of success, keeping her clients out of jail and keeping a clean record. Whether you are arrested in Fremont, Richmond or anywhere else in Contra Costa County or Alameda County, contact Lynn Gorelick.