The state of California takes the crime of arson very seriously. Think about how wildfires have devastated our community – some fires started by accident, but others started due to a deliberate case of arson. In many cases, the charge of arson is automatically a felony, which, if convicted, could land you in prison for many years and result in large fines.
It’s hard to say that California law carries harsher punishment for arson than other states, though. Sentencing for an arson conviction is complicated, and based on several factors, which we will discuss below. But, for instance, in Maryland, first degree arson is punishable by up to 30 years in prison and/or a fine of up to $50,000, which is harsher than California. That being said, a sentence for arson can be increased based on if people were hurt as a result of the arson fire, for instance.
If you or someone you know has been charged with arson in California, you need the help of an arson defense lawyer in Los Angeles to help you navigate the court system. A good arson lawyer may be able to get the charges reduced, or thrown out altogether.
What Is Arson?
Arson is defined as the act of willful and malicious burning of your property or another’s property. This can include land, houses, businesses, cars, and smaller property.
The state of California has two sections of the Penal Code that deal with arson – Section 451 (“Malicious Arson”) and Section 452 (“Reckless Burning”). Malicious arson is the more serious of the two charges, and is always a felony. Reckless burning can be a misdemeanor or a felony, but carries jail time even if the charge is a misdemeanor. The specific charge(s) you face will determine what penalties you may face.
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What is Malicious Arson?
According to the California Penal Code, in order for the charge to be malicious arson, a few things must have happened:
- You willfully and maliciously set fire to any structure, land, or property.(including cars and other personal property) or you helped someone else do so.
- You did so maliciously
The property, structure or land in this case has to belong to someone else, such as another person, the public (as in a state park,) or a business. In general, you can’t be convicted of arson for burning your own property, unless you were hoping to defraud the insurance company and collect on a policy, or if the fire you set then spreads to someone else’s property.
The word malicious is key in this arson charge. In order for you to be convicted of malicious arson, the prosecutor must prove that you had a specific intent to start a fire, and that intent was malicious. Malicious intent would include the following:
- You were trying to defraud an insurance company.
- You were trying to hurt or kill someone.
- You were trying to deliberately damage the property due to anger, spite, or jealousy.
This means that if you started a fire from using fireworks, or you were burning trash and the wind caused embers to catch someone’s roof on fire, you should not face a charge of malicious arson, because you lacked malice. You may still be charged with reckless burning, however.
What is Reckless Burning?
The California Penal Code defines reckless burning in the same terms as arson, except there is no “malicious intent.” The charge of reckless burning could apply to:
- Setting a fire for amusement or thrill – you just wanted to see something burn.
- Setting a fire because of a mental illness (pyromania or schizophrenia where “voices” told you to set the fire)
- Starting any other fire where you did not intend to harm someone or defraud anyone, and you had no malicious intent
A prosecutor may initially charge you with malicious arson, but a good lawyer can often get the charges reduced to reckless burning. It is also possible to get your case dismissed altogether because of lack of evidence.
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What Counts as ‘Setting a Fire?’
For legal purposes, setting a fire simply means you lit a match or a lighter and the property caught fire. If you started a fire that just caused a little burn mark and some smoke damage, it still counts as setting a fire under California arson law.
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What are the Penalties for Arson in California?
There is no one-size-fits all penalty if you’re convicted of arson. The penalties you face for an arson conviction vary based on a few things:
- What specific charge you are facing
- Whether anyone suffered “great bodily harm” (serious injury or death) and how many people or animals
- The specific circumstances of your case
The California Penal Code does lay out some specific penalties for the various charges we described above.
Malicious Arson Penalties
- 16 months to 3 years in prison if you burned your own property and someone else’s caught fire
- 2–6 years for setting fire to non-inhabited property
- 3-8 years for setting fire to inhabited buildings
- 7-9 years if someone suffered great bodily harm as a result of the fire
- A fine of up to $10,000, orup to $50,000 or twice the amount you’re expected to recover from insurance
- A strike under California’s Three Strikes Law and convicted arson status for life, and lifetime status as a convicted arsonist
‘Enhanced’ Malicious Arson Penalties
You will face the above penalties plus an extra 1-5 years of prison time, under a variety of circumstances. These include:
- You have a prior conviction for any arson crime.
- An emergency worker (such as a firefighter or EMS worker) was harmed.
- More than two people suffered great bodily injury.
- Multiple structures were affected.
- You used a device to either delay the start of the fire (like a timer) or accelerate it.
Misdemeanor Reckless Burning Penalties
If the burning involves only personal property, it is usually charged as a misdemeanor and carries up to 6 months in jail and $1,000 in fines.
Felony Reckless Burning Penalties
- If reckless burning involves a structure or forested land, the prosecutor can try the case as a misdemeanor (as above) or a felony.
- Felony penalties include state prison time based on the circumstances, with sentences similar to those for malicious arson.
- The same “enhancements” apply to felony reckless burning as listed above for felony malicious burning
Can You Beat an Arson Charge?
Yes. A good arson defense lawyer can help you get the charges reduced, or even dismissed, depending on the specifics of your case. Some lines of defense include:
- There is no evidence of arson, and the fire appears to be accidental.
- The forensic “evidence” indicating arson is unscientific or contains errors.
- The evidence against you is flimsy or purely circumstantial. The prosecutor knows there isn’t enough evidence to convict.
- You are not the one who started the fire, and you have been misidentified. (Security camera footage can be invaluable.)
Contact the Criminal Defense Lawyers at Simmrin Law Group
If you or a loved one have been detained for questioning or arrested for arson in California, hiring an experienced criminal defense lawyer in Los Angeles is your best chance at avoiding a criminal conviction.
If you need a criminal defense lawyer in Los Angeles, call the Simmrin Law Group at 310-997-4688 for a free consultation. We’re available to take your call 24/7. Don’t talk to the police until you talk to us.