Fires cause significant property losses and pose a substantial risk to human life. For this reason, the state will aggressively prosecute individuals who intentionally set fires or help others set fires on structures, property, or forest land. These actions, if convicted, could result in substantial consequences, namely jail time and fines. With the help of a skilled attorney, you can fight the charges.
At Los Angeles Criminal Attorney, we work with individuals accused of arson charges by assessing their cases and determining the ideal legal approach to fighting them. Early intervention is critical. Contact our team immediately if you are under investigation or are facing arson charges.
Arson Under California Law
Arson is a crime under Penal Code 451 and Penal Code 452. PC 451 describes arson as the willful and malicious burning of, setting fire to, procuring, counseling, or aiding another to burn a structure, property, or forest land. PC 451’s definition of arson provides the elements prosecutors must prove in your case to secure your conviction.
The jury will only find you guilty of arson if the prosecutors prove the following.
- You burned or set fire to or caused the burning of a structure, property, or forest land, and
- You acted willfully and maliciously.
If charged for a PC 452 violation, the prosecution must prove that you burned or set fire to or caused the burning of a structure, property, or forest land.
Let us look at each element in detail.
Setting Fire to
You set fire to or burn by means of fire when you use fire to damage property. You can destroy or damage the entire property or a small portion. Evidence like a simple wood charring will result in charges under PC 451.
Willful and Malicious Action
Willful action means deliberate or purposeful action. On the other hand, you act maliciously when you engage in an act with an unlawful intent to annoy, defraud, or injure another individual. Additionally, any wrongful act is also deemed malicious.
Willful and malicious action differentiates arson charges under PC 451 from PC 452. Arson under PC 451 requires prosecutors to prove willfulness and malice in your acts. However, a violation of PC 452, willfulness, or malice in your actions is not necessary for reckless burning.
A jury will find you guilty of reckless burning if the prosecutors demonstrate that:
- You were aware that your actions could present a significant and unjustifiable risk of causing a fire,
- You ignored the risks, and
- Your actions grossly deviated from acts a reasonable person would take, given the same circumstances.
It bears emphasizing that recklessness should not be mistaken for carelessness or negligence. Recklessness is a higher standard. Therefore, dozing off while a fire is burning while camping is an accident and not reckless. However, if you entirely disregard safety, your actions demonstrate recklessness.
Structures and Forest Land
California law considers structures to include buildings, commercial or public tents, tunnels, bridges, and power plants. Further, fixtures also feature in the list of structures if they are integral to a building. Whether the fixture is an essential part of the building is a question of fact determined by the jury.
Forest land includes woods, brush-covered land, grasslands, cut-over lands, and forests.
Property under arson laws refers to personal or real property (land), not forest land. Items that the courts consider property include clothing and trash.
If you burn property you own, you will not face arson charges unless:
- Another person was injured in the building or
- You intended to defraud another individual, including your insurance provider, when you set fire to your property.
Defenses You Can Assert in an Arson Case
Arson is a serious charge whose conviction results in substantial penalties. You can assert several defenses to challenge the prosecution's allegations. The circumstances of your case determine the choice of the ideal defense strategy.
No Willful Action
Prosecutors bear the burden of proving that you acted deliberately and maliciously when you set fire to the structure, property, or forest land. In some situations, a fire, though destructive, could have been accidental. Your attorney will demonstrate to the jury that your actions were accidental and lacked the deliberateness and malice required for a conviction under PC 451.
Lack of an Intent to Defraud
The prosecution could allege that you aimed to defraud your insurance provider when you set fire to your property. However, an error in judgment that results in a fire is an accident and not an intention to profit from an insurance claim.
For example, investigations could determine that the cause of the fire on your property was your electric stove. You could have left and forgotten you left water boiling on the stove. The boiling water then spilled over and caused a short circuit, causing the fire.
Filing a claim with the insurance company for the loss incurred does not mean you caused the fire for the insurance payout. Your attorney will assert this to the jury.
It is possible your arson charges resulted from a false accusation. Your accuser could mistakenly or intentionally accuse you of burning his/her property based on past disagreements.
For example, Jim and Peter fight over a fence Peter put up. According to Jim, the fence is on his property. The feud escalates, reaching a point where Jim threatens revenge. One day, an electrical fault caused a fire after Peter had installed lights around his home. Peter then accuses Jim of arson.
In the above situation, an independent investigation to determine the cause of the fire is pivotal. Further, attorneys will establish Jim’s alibi to prove that he could not have started the fire despite his disagreements with Peter.
In other situations, someone could accidentally burn the property and not want to take responsibility for it, accusing you of the offense. For example, when the actual perpetrator in a group a defendant belongs to while committing another crime sets fire to the property. However, the actual offender points to the defendant as the arsonist to avoid conviction. Another likely scenario is in domestic violence cases. A romantic partner sets fire to a property and points to the defendant as the person who did it.
Establishing your alibi and conducting independent arson investigations are two approaches your attorney could take to prove your wrongful arrest.
The Fire Was Not a Case of Arson
Fires can start from anywhere and are not always the result of arson. Smoking, electrical faults, malfunctioning heating or cooking appliances, harsh weather conditions, or lightning all cause fires. Prosecutors must prove you set fire to the property beyond a reasonable doubt. By presenting evidence that the fire was caused by a situation other than you setting fire to the property, your attorneys will cast doubt on the prosecution’s case.
Penalties If Convicted of Arson
A violation of PC 451 is a felony. The penalties vary depending on the type of property affected by the incident or whether an individual suffered an injury.
In situations where arson results in another person suffering an injury, you will receive the penalties outlined under PC 451(a):
- Five, seven, or nine years in prison
The victim’s injuries should be great, meaning they are significant. Great bodily injuries include second and third-degree burns, concussions, and broken bones.
If convicted of arson on a structure or forest land, you will face the following sentence:
- Two, four, or six years in prison, according to PC 451(c).
If it was private property, a violation of PC 451(d) is punishable by the following penalties:
- Sixteen months, two, or three years in prison.
If the jury finds you guilty of arson under any of the following circumstances, you will face imprisonment for ten years to life. You will only be released after serving a minimum of ten years. Arson with the following circumstances is aggravated arson, a crime under PC 451.5.
- You have one or more prior convictions for arson within the past ten years or
- The fire destroyed or caused damage to five or more inhabited structures — Inhabited structures refer to a property where people live. However, the inhabitant must not necessarily be present at the time of the incident for you to be guilty of arson.
Reckless Burning Penalties
Reckless burning is a misdemeanor offense. A conviction results in a jail sentence of up to six months, a maximum fine of $1,000, or both. Reckless burning can also be a wobbler offense. Prosecutors can pursue misdemeanor or felony charges.
Reckless burning becomes a wobbler and results in the following penalties upon conviction:
- If the reckless burning was on a structure or forest land, a conviction on misdemeanor charges results in up to six months in jail. Convictions on felony charges, on the other hand, result in 16 months, two or three years in prison.
- If the reckless burning was on an inhabited property or structure, a conviction on misdemeanor charges results in up to one year in jail. Convictions on felony charges, on the other hand, result in two, three, or four years in prison.
- If reckless burning causes another individual to sustain a great bodily injury, a conviction on misdemeanor charges results in up to one year in jail. Convictions on felony charges, on the other hand, result in two, four, or six years in prison.
A Strike Under California’s Three Strikes Law
Violations of PC 451(a), arson causing great bodily injury, and PC 451(b), arson of an inhabited property or structure, are strikeable offenses since the two fall under the list of violent felonies under Penal Code 667. You will earn a strike on your record upon conviction.
If the arson conviction is a first offense, your record will reflect a strike, but the sentences issued by the judge remain unchanged.
According to California’s Three Strikes Law, second-strikers will serve double their sentences issued for the current offense upon conviction. Therefore, you will receive double the penalties the judge issues if you have a prior strike on your record and the arson charges result in another strike.
You will receive a third strike if you have two prior strikes on your record and are convicted of arson. Third-strikers will receive a prison sentence of 25 years to life if convicted.
Arson convictions also impact gun rights and the immigration status of non-citizens.
Penal Code 29800 makes it a crime for felons to purchase, receive, own, control, or possess a gun. Therefore, you will lose your second amendment rights if convicted on felony charges. You risk facing additional charges if you are found in possession of a gun post-release from prison.
Non-citizens convicted of violent felonies will have their status revoked and be deported to their country of origin. Further, they will be denied re-entry to the United States.
Expunging Your Conviction
Expunging your conviction under Penal Code 1203.4 frees you from the burden of having a criminal record. As a result, you can obtain credit, find work, and rent or buy a home—advantages that people with criminal records do not have.
However, expungement is only an option if:
- You complete your probation, or
- You complete your jail sentence, whichever applied in your case.
If you served a prison sentence, you would not be a candidate for expungement.
Offenses Related to Arson
Prosecutors could pursue additional arson charges based on the case's circumstances. The District Attorney could seek a conviction for the following crimes:
- First-degree murder, an offense under Penal Code 187
- Burglary, a crime under Penal Code 459(c)
- Trespass, an offense under Penal Code 602
Let us look at the crimes in detail.
You will likely face first-degree murder charges if the victim of the arson incident dies. First-degree murder is a serious crime. By charging you with first-degree murder, the prosecutors will allege you unlawfully killed the victim with malice aforethought.
Malice aforethought is your mental state at the time of the killing. It means you intend to kill another individual or commit an act with the potential of endangering human life. Malice can be express, which means that you had a specific intent to kill, or implied, meaning you intentionally and willfully committed an act dangerous to human life with a conscious disregard for human life.
Therefore, should you face murder charges in an arson incident, the prosecution will assert that you deliberately set fire to the property to kill the victim or that your actions that led to the fire were a conscious disregard for human life.
Penal Code 187 requires prosecutors to prove the following elements in the murder case:
- You caused the death of another individual
- You acted with malice aforethought, and
- You killed the victim without a legal justification or excuse.
Alternatively, you could face murder charges under the felony murder rule. Under Senate Bill 1437, you are liable for murder if you kill another individual while committing a violent felony like arson. A jury will only find you guilty of felony murder if the following are true:
- You killed a person
- You aided or abetted in the commission of the murder in the first degree, intending to kill
- You were a significant participant in the felony, and you acted with reckless indifference to human life, or
- Your actions caused an on-duty peace officer's death — Peace officers include police officers and firefighters.
Penalties for Murder
First-degree murder convictions are felonies punishable by:
- 25 years to life in prison or
- Life in prison without the possibility of parole
If you set fire to a residential or commercial property or a locked vehicle after the premises or vehicle were locked to commit petty or grand theft, you will likely face burglary and arson charges.
Burglary is traditionally thought of as entering an inhabited place without permission and with the intention to commit a serious crime. Penal Code 459 expands this definition to include:
- Entering a residential structure, which is first-degree burglary — Residence refers to an inhabited structure. Therefore, the list includes inhabited houses, boats, trailer coaches, floating homes, hotels or motel rooms, or any kind of building, or
- Second-degree burglary is committed by entering a commercial building to commit petty or grand theft.
The state must prove the following elements to secure your conviction:
- You entered a building, a room inside the building, a structure, or a locked car
- You intended to commit a felony or theft when you accessed the property
- One or more of the following are accurate:
- The value of the property you intended to steal exceeded $950
- The structure you entered was not a commercial property, or
- The structure you entered was a commercial property, but you entered it outside business hours.
Penalties for Burglary
The penalties for a burglary charge vary depending on which degree of burglary the courts find you guilty of.
If found guilty of first-degree burglary, you will face the following penalties:
- Two, four, or six years in prison,
- A maximum fine of $10,000 or both.
- Formal or felony probation instead of prison time.
Second-degree burglary is a wobbler offense. You can face misdemeanor or felony charges. If found guilty of misdemeanor second-degree burglary, you will face the following penalties:
- Up to one year in jail,
- A maximum fine of $1,000 or both.
- Summary or misdemeanor probation instead of jail time.
If found guilty of felony second-degree burglary, you will face the following penalties:
- 16 months, two or three years in jail,
- A maximum fine of $10,000 or both.
- Formal probation instead of jail time.
Trespass under Penal Code 602 refers to entering and remaining on another individual’s property without permission. You will face trespass and arson charges for entering another person’s property without his/her authorization and setting fire to the property.
Penal Code 602 outlines several activities that fit the description of criminal trespass. The acts include the following:
- Willfully entering another person’s property to damage the property.
- Deliberately entering another person’s property to interfere with or obstruct the commercial activities conducted on the property.
- Intentionally entering and occupying property belonging to another without permission.
- Refusing to vacate the property after being requested to do so.
Penalties for Trespass
Trespass is an infraction, misdemeanor, or felony violation, depending on the circumstances of your case.
You will face infraction penalties if:
- You deliberately entered another person’s land without permission, and
- The land had a no-trespassing sign posted or was enclosed by a fence.
For the infraction, you will pay a fine of $75 for the first offense and $250 for a second offense on the same land.
Prosecutors pursue most trespass violations as misdemeanors. If convicted, you will face up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
Trespass becomes a felony if:
- You threaten to injure someone else seriously and intend to make the victim fear for his/her safety, and
- You enter the victim's workplace or residence to carry out the threat within thirty days of making the threat
Note: The threat must be credible and believable.
Felony trespass is also referred to as aggravated trespass. The crime is a wobbler. If convicted on misdemeanor charges, the penalties are harsher than those for misdemeanor trespass. A conviction results in:
- A jail sentence of up to one year,
- A fine of up to $2,000, or both.
Felony penalties include the following:
- A jail sentence of up to three years,
- A fine of up to $10,000, or both.
Contact the Right Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me
You want to hire the best attorney when faced with serious charges like arson. You should evaluate your pick by assessing his/her experience, track record, credibility, and communication. All these qualities determine whether your attorney will adequately fight the charges.
Our track record at Los Angeles Criminal Attorney speaks for itself. We have successfully defended individuals who faced criminal charges. We believe in early intervention. Therefore, call us at 424-333-0943 if you are under investigation for arson or have been charged with the offense. We would like to apply our expertise to your case.