Arson is maliciously and intentionally burning forestland, vehicle, structure, or personal property. This is a severe offense that attracts incarceration, hefty fines, and registration as an arson offender, depending on the case circumstances. We invite you to contact our attorneys at the Los Angeles Criminal Attorney. We can review your case and develop a defense that will possibly have your charges dropped or your penalties reduced.
Under California PC 451, it is an offense to set either a property, structure, or forest land ablaze.
To be found guilty of arson in Los Angeles, the prosecutor should prove beyond any reasonable doubt that:
- You burnt or set fire to, or caused a forest land, property, or structure to burn, and
- You acted maliciously and willfully.
Common examples of arson include:
- Burning another person's vehicle as a way of seeking revenge
- Causing a forest fire by purposely throwing a cigarette in branches and dry grass
- Burning a restaurant so that you can collect insurance money
Definition of the Elements of the Offense
Here are the key elements of arson.
Maliciously and Willfully
As far as arson law is concerned, a person engages in a behavior willfully when they do it on purpose, deliberately, or willingly.
The term "maliciously," on the other hand, means engaging in wrongful conduct or when you behave with the illegal intent to annoy, injure, or defraud another person. Malicious intent may include
- You were attempting to defraud your insurance provider
- You were attempting to kill or injure a person
- You were deliberately damaging the property as a result of jealousy, spite, or anger
In other words, if a defendant was burning garbage and the wind caused residues to catch another person's roof in fire or started a fire using fireworks, the defendant will not be prosecuted under PC 451 since they did not act with malice.
It is worth noting that you could still be sentenced for violation of PC 452 law, even if you didn't act maliciously and willfully. According to PC 452, it is illegal to recklessly burn or set aflame to forest land, property, or structure.
Note that recklessly is a lower standard compared to maliciously and willfully since it involves:
- You know that your conduct could result in the significant and unjustifiable danger of causing a fire,
- You ignore the danger, and
- Doing so is a gross deviation from how a sensible individual could behave in a similar situation.
The reckless burning charge could also apply to:
- Setting a fire due to thrill or amusement
- Setting a fire as a result of mental condition, such as schizophrenia or pyromania
The prosecution team can initially charge you with malicious PC 451, but your experienced defense attorney can get the charge reduced to reckless burning under Penal Code Section 452. Additionally, the case can be dismissed altogether due to insufficient evidence.
Setting a Fire
In this context, to burn or set fire means damaging with fire. It can be either a section of something or all, notwithstanding how tiny the section is.
In short, it is lighting a lighter or match, and a property catches fire. Per arson law, starting a fire that just leads to smoke damage and a small burn mark is still considered setting a fire.
The term "property" in this context means personal land or property other than forest land. It includes items such as trash and clothing.
It is not a crime to burn your personal property unless:
- A person was injured in the property
- The conduct was executed to defraud
Forest Land and Structure
Under Penal Code Section 451 PC, a structure can be a bridge, tunnel, public or commercial tent, building, or power plant.
Fire damage to a fixture in a building can be considered a structure if the fixture is an essential component of the building.
Penalties, Sentencing, and Consequences
- Penalties Attracted by Violation of Penal Code Section 451 PC
Violation of Penal Code Section 451 PC is a California felony. The penalties you face depend on:
- The kind of property burnt
- Whether any person sustained burn injuries or not
The potential California state prison terms for arson include:
- Sixteen months, two (2) years or three (3) years for arson of personal property
- Two (2), four (4), or six (6) years for arson of forest land or a structure
- Three (3), five (5), or eight (8) years for arson that makes an inhabitant property or inhabitant structure to burn
- Five (5), seven (7), or nine (9) years should the offense result in a great bodily hurt
A great bodily injury is a substantial or significant physical injury. Although injuries like paralysis and brain damage are the apparent types of severe bodily injuries, it's worth noting that the hurt does not have to be this severe or permanent.
Additional consequences include:
- A maximum fine of ten thousand dollars or double the amount of the anticipated financial gain for defrauding
- A strike under the Three Strikes Law
- Registration as an arson offender
The length of the registration as an arson offender depends on whether you were below 18 years of age or an adult at the time of the crime and conviction.
If you are a minor, the registration will end when your criminal record is sealed under Welfare and Institutions Code Section 781 or once you turn 25 years, whichever happens first. Typically, for adults, arson committed after November 30, 1994, requires life registration.
The judge can also impose sentencing enhancement if specific aggravating factors are present. These aggravating factors include either of the below:
- A firefighter, emergency personnel, or a law enforcer sustained great bodily hurt due to the fire
- Having a previous arson conviction per Penal Code Section 452 or PC 451
- More than 2 (two) persons sustained great bodily hurt due to the fire
- The fire damaged more than one structure
- The defendant used a gadget to accelerate the fire or to delay the fire's ignition
If one of the circumstances is present, the court will impose additional and consecutive one to five years in prison.
Additionally, the judge can sentence the defendant to the maximum term if they burnt a building in vengeance for the wrong that the structure or building's owner committed.
Moreover, you could face a ten-year or life sentence if you burn with a malicious intent to destroy an inhabited structure or injure another person, and one of the circumstances below is present:
- You have a previous PC 451 conviction within ten years
- At least five structures were destroyed
- Property's value plus any losses or expenses linked with it, like containing and putting off the fire, exceeds five million six hundred and fifty thousand dollars
Will You Face Sentencing Enhancement for Burning a Place of Worship?
You are likely to receive a maximum prison-term if you were aware that you were burning a place of worship, like a church, mosque, or synagogue.
- Penalties Attracted by Violation of PC 452
Reckless burning of personal property is filed as a misdemeanor. It attracts a maximum of one thousand dollars in fine and six months in county jail.
If the reckless burning causes a great bodily hurt or forest land or structure to burn, then it is charged as a wobbler. That means it could be charged either as a felony or a misdemeanor depending on the case circumstances.
Below are the penalties you are likely to face when reckless burning is a California wobbler:
- A misdemeanor reckless burning of forestland or structure carries a six-month county jail term while a felony attracts sixteen (16) months, two (2), or three (3) years in prison
- If you recklessly burnt an inhabited property or structure, you will spend a year in jail if charged with a misdemeanor or 2, 3, or 4 years in prison if charged with a felony
- Reckless burning, which results in great bodily injury, carries a one-year county jail sentence if prosecuted as a misdemeanor. A felony, on the other hand, is punishable by 2, 4, or 6 years in prison.
Violation of arson laws carries immigration penalties.
According to U.S. immigration law, crimes of moral turpitude can cause a non-citizen to be marked inadmissible or deported.
Crimes of moral turpitude involve dishonesty or vile, base conduct that shocks a reasonable individual. Arson in California falls under crimes of moral turpitude category.
An Arson Conviction Affects Firearm Entitlement
Under California law, it is illegal for convicted felons to possess or obtain a firearm in the state. Because arson is a felony, a conviction will cause you to lose your right to possess or own a gun.
Arson Conviction Expungement
If convicted of the violation of PC 451, you are entitled to expungement as long as you:
- Complete your jail term
- Successfully complete probation
You could still get the crime expunged even if you broke a probation term. However, this is within the court's discretion.
Also referred to as dismissal, per PC 1203.4, an expungement seeks to release you from almost all consequences and limitations that originate from a conviction.
Fighting Arson Charges
Here are the legal defenses that a criminal defense attorney can use to fight the charges.
The Defendant Did Not Act Willfully/ It was an accident
One of the elements of the offense that the prosecution team should establish is that the fire began recklessly, maliciously, or willfully. That means you can't be sentenced in case the fire started by mistake.
Moreover, your defense attorney can question the forensic proof presented in your case should there be a likelihood that it could be:
- Collected using outdated investigative methods like Assuming based on burn sequence
Mistaken Identity or False Accusation
There are several reasons why a person could be wrongly charged or mistakenly identified for arson. Perhaps:
- Witnesses incorrectly identified the accused as the culprit
- The accused's items were found at the crime scene
- Somebody else started a fire and accused the accused as a way to escape the blame
Whatever the reason, your experienced lawyer should be in a position to persuade the court of your innocence.
Arson Didn't Start the Fire
Your criminal defense attorney can also claim that something else, other than arson, started the fire. Common causes of fire include:
- Cooking or heating appliances
- Old or faulty wiring
- Lightning or harsh weather
You Did Not Plan to Defraud
Remember, you cannot be convicted of burning your personal property unless:
- Another person was injured in the building
- The act was executed to defraud
That means you have a legal defense if you did not intend to defraud. An individual is considered to have committed fraud when they attempt deceiving or tricking somebody else.
Generally, in Penal Code Section 451 PC, it is common for proof to be damaged during the fire or there to be no witnesses. Even though circumstantial evidence is binding in criminal trials, it's hard for the prosecution team to have a case founded on circumstantial evidence alone. To have an arson conviction, the prosecutor should establish the facts of the crime beyond any reasonable doubt.
Circumstantial evidence could include:
- The presence of an aim based on financial issues
- Learning that a defendant conducted a study on how to start a fire
- Vengeance after being unfairly terminated from employment
- A witness testifying that he saw the defendant running from the fire scene prior to the starting of the fire
- Finding accelerants or gasoline containers in the garage
Intoxication and Arson
Arson is an intent offense. Therefore, an attorney cannot use this defense if the accused caused the danger because they were under the influence of alcohol or drugs. In this case, you will be found guilty of reckless burning.
However, you can use involuntary intoxication as a legal defense.
Are There Offenses that are Related to Penal Code Section 451 PC?
Here are the offenses that are commonly charged in place of or alongside arson.
According to PC 187, first-degree murder is prosecuted when a killing:
- Invokes the felony-murder rule
- Is performed in a willful, premeditated, and deliberate manner
- Is achieved through torture, lying in wait, poison, armor-piercing bullets, or a destructive gadget
Just like PC 451, a Penal Code Section 187 PC conviction could require proving the defendant's willfulness.
Under PC 459, a burglary happens when you:
- Enter a commercial or residential room or building, and
- Do so to engage in theft or felony when you enter.
Unlike arson, burglary doesn't include forest land and structures.
Per Penal Code Section 602 PC, you commit trespass when you remain on or enter another person's property without the right to or consent. Perfect examples of trespass include:
- Refusing to leave a private land or public building like a hotel
- Driving your car on somebody else's property without the individual's consent
- Taking timber or soil from somebody else's land without permission
Trespass is different from arson in that there isn't a requirement that the accused acted maliciously or willfully.
Trespass is considered a misdemeanor. Its potential penalties include the following:
- A maximum fine of one thousand dollars
- A six-month jail sentence
Penal Code 594 PC makes it an offense to maliciously and willfully deface somebody else's property with markings, graffiti, or otherwise destroying or damaging the said asset.
Per insurance fraud law, it is unlawful to bring an insurance claim with an aim to falsify details or mislead therein to acquire benefits from the insurance provider.
A good example could be an individual who burns down their home to get insurance proceeds. In this case, the prosecutor may file insurance fraud and arson charges. The charges will attract double the expected/actual insurance proceeds.
More often than not, the County Fire Department in which the fire happened conducts arson investigations in California. Other private and government authorities that can get involved in the investigations for insurance coverage and criminal prosecutions include:
- Department of Justice
- California Conference of Arson
- State Fire Marshal's Office Arson and Bomb Unit
- Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms Arson and Bomb Unit
- California District Attorney's Association
The results of the investigations can significantly affect:
- What you're prosecuted with, and
- The seriousness of the charges.
If it is concluded that a defendant recklessly caused the fire, there is a likelihood that the charges will be a California misdemeanor. If the investigator thinks that you started the fire maliciously and willfully, then you are likely to face a felony or even a California strike.
The investigation process is also vital as far as building defense is concerned. Your attorney could find new witnesses and evidence that is favorable to your case.
Find a Los Angeles Criminal Defense Lawyer Near Me
If you or a loved one has been charged with arson, it is recommended to speak to a defense lawyer immediately. An arson conviction in Los Angeles can have devastating consequences on your life other than incarceration. It could even affect your ability to secure job opportunities and housing, not forgetting the impact on civil rights. At the Los Angeles Criminal Attorney, we can conduct an investigation of the case facts as a way of getting evidence for your defense. Call us today at 424-333-0943 to schedule your initial consultation.