Fire incidents pose a significant danger to human life, including massive property losses. Therefore, any intentional and malicious setting fire to, aiding, or procuring burning of a property, forest, or structure is a criminal offense that attracts severe penalties. In California, this property crime is called arson. A guilty verdict for arson can result in nine years of prison or jail incarceration without proper legal representation. At Monterey Criminal Attorney, we will invest our experience and resources in ensuring a fair verdict or charge dismissal.

Legal Definition of Arson

Conventionally, arson is setting on fire on someone’s property or structure. You could have faced these charges in the past because the law aimed to protect people from injuries or deaths from fire incidents in occupied structures.

Today, the scope of arson statutes has widened to encompass setting fire to any property. Burning personal property, forest, land, or building all amounts to arson.

Per PEN 451, arson is generally the intentional and malicious burning of property.

Arson types

California arson is categorized into reckless burning and malicious arson, with reckless burning deemed a lesser offense. Whatever type of arson you face, you should take the charges seriously and hire a defense attorney.

Reckless Burning

According to PEN 452, reckless burning is the unintentional cause of a fire. When you face these charges, the prosecutor must corroborate that you set fire to a structure, forest, or property and that the offense was reckless and unintended.

For purposes of this statute, reckless conduct refers to actions you know pose a substantial risk of a fire incident. By engaging in the act, your conduct fails to demonstrate how an ordinary person in the same circumstances would have acted. You should know that if the cause of the fire was accidental, you cannot face charges for reckless burning. Besides, recklessness is not the same as negligence or carelessness.

Malicious Arson

PEN 451 defines the deliberate setting of fire on a property, forest, or home. When prosecuting the case, the district attorney (DA) must confirm that you caused a fire incident to a forest, personal structure, or property and that your actions were willful and malicious.

Per California statutes, arson happens when you destroy property with fire. You will face charges when a fire incident happens to a forest or structure.

The structure under this statute refers to a building, bridge, or tent. Property means personal items like vehicles, furniture, or clothing. When you set fire to your property, you do not face criminal charges unless the fire incident was intended to commit insurance fraud or you planned on destroying other people’s property. Forest means grasslands, woodlands, or land filled with bushes.

The prosecutor will charge you with arson when you set property or structure on fire maliciously or purposely to cause harm or destroy property.

Arson Elements

You will be guilty of arson if the DA can prove these elements:

  1. You Acted Knowingly and Maliciously

Arson is knowingly and purposely burning property belonging to another party. The DA focuses on your intentions or motives when proving this element. They must show that your actions were malicious and intended to defraud, annoy, or harm someone. The prosecutor does not need to show how you planned on burning or destroying the property despite having the burden of proof. They must show the motive or intention to engage in a violation.

People engage in arson for various reasons. Some do it because they have fire protection coverage, and setting fire to their property could be done for monetary incentives. Others can burn public or private property for their own pleasure.

Motives for arson have several classifications. The first one is for monetary incentives. You could fire a building or structure insured against fire for monetary gain. Doing so amounts to insurance fraud that attracts felony charges. You can also burn someone’s property to eliminate competition, avoid financial obligations, or increase a property’s worth.

Another motive for arson is revenge. When someone commits an injustice or what appears to be an injustice, you can choose to retaliate by burning property, which can have severe consequences like loss of life, injuries, or property damage.

Similarly, you can engage in arson to conceal or hide a crime. You can burn a structure to hide evidence like a dead body or burn a vehicle to cover fingerprints. The crimes you can conceal by setting property on fire are murder, burglary, or paperwork that could implicate you in a crime.

Also, you can commit arson to benefit an extremist group’s religious, political, or social cause. Fire incidents started by extremist group members are categorized as civil disturbances or terrorism.

Other motives for burning a structure or property are vandalism and excitement.

If the DA can show your actions were motivated by any of these reasons, the court will likely find you guilty of arson.

You should remember that even if you lacked motive or intent, the court could still convict you of arson under PEN 452 if you acted recklessly. The evidentiary standard for reckless burning is lower than that for malicious arson. The prosecutor only needs to demonstrate that you knew your conduct posed a considerable and unjustifiable risk of causing a fire incident. Still, you ignored the risks in the gross deviation of how a sober person would have acted under the same circumstances.

  1. The Burning Was Direct or Indirect

The DA must demonstrate that you directly burned a building, forest, or property for you to be guilty of arson. Also, indirect burning of a property through reckless conduct can attract charges and a possible conviction.

  1. You Caused Property Damage

Property refers to land other than forest or private property like clothing or trash. Therefore, before a guilty verdict, the prosecutor should demonstrate that a fire or explosion you caused led to damage. Nevertheless, it should not mean you are innocent if the arson does not cause any property damage or no one obtains injuries. Even if the fire lasted for a short duration, causing minimal damage, you risk conviction.

Arson Penalties

Arson is a felony, and the penalties you will face when the court finds you guilty depend on the kind of property you are accused of burning and whether someone sustained injuries. There are different penalties for violating various subsections of PEN 451.

When the fire incident you started causes someone else to sustain injuries, you will face penalties under PEN 451(a). A conviction involving arson with significant bodily injury attracts 60, 84, or 96 months of prison incarceration. Great or significant physical injuries in this subsection refer to fractured bones, concussions, and second- or third-degree burns.

When arson occurs on an occupied structure, your penalties upon a guilty verdict are provided for under PEN 451(b), including no more than 72 months of prison incarceration.

You will face felony penalties under PEN 451(c) when you burn public land like a forest or a building. The punishment for this violation is 24, 48, or 72 months in prison.

PEN 451(d) provides penalties for setting fire to private property. If the prosecutor proves all the case’s elements and finds you guilty under this section, you will receive 16, 24, or 36 months of prison.

Incarceration for malicious arson is served in prison, not jail. Besides, arsonists never face misdemeanor or wobbler counts under PEN 451. They only face felony charges.

You should know that PEN 451.5 goes the extra mile to state that when you set fire to a building or property with premeditation, you risk felony charges. Additionally, the section outlines that you will attract aggravated arson charges if you have at least one previous arson conviction in the last ten years or if the fire incident causes property loss worth $7 million. Also, the court will rule against aggravated arson when a fire incident burns down at least five occupied buildings or structures. Nevertheless, the occupants of these structures do not need to be present during the fire for the court to convict you of aggravated arson. The punishment for aggravated arson ranges from ten years to life imprisonment with no parole unless you serve at least ten years of the sentence.

Reckless Burning Repercussions

Reckless burning under PEN 452 is a misdemeanor count that attracts at most half a year in jail and no more than $1,000 in court fines. Nevertheless, chances are the prosecutor can file the offense as a wobbler, misdemeanor, or felony when you burn a structure or forestland. The penalties for a wobbler include:

  • At most, six months of jail sentence when the court issues a guilty verdict for misdemeanor burning of forest land or building. A felony count for the same attracts sixteen, twenty-four, or thirty-six months in prison.
  • No more than twelve months of jail incarceration for a misdemeanor setting on fire to an occupied building or property. A conviction for felony burning of an occupied structure is punishable by 24, 36, or 48 months in prison.
  • At most, twelve months in jail for a misdemeanor sentence when the reckless burning causes someone else to suffer significant bodily harm. When charged with a felony in the same circumstances, you risk 24, 48, or 72 months of prison incarceration when found guilty.

It is worth understanding that when you are convicted under PEN 451(a), arson with significant bodily injury, or PEN 451(b), arson on an occupied building, you will receive a strike on your record because these two violations are violent felonies outlined under PC 667. If it is your first conviction, the strike will not affect the sentences imposed by the judge for the crime.

However, if you are a second striker, the judge doubles your current arson sentence upon conviction. The first conviction counts as a prior strike, while the second arson sentence adds another strike. If you have two previous strikes for arson, a third guilty verdict for the same offense will result in a third strike. Under the circumstances, the court will impose twenty-five years of life imprisonment.

Additional Repercussions

A guilty verdict for arson will adversely affect your immigration status if you are a non-citizen because you risk deportation or inadmissibility. You face the consequences of removal or being deemed inadmissible because arson is an offense of moral turpitude.

Similarly, a guilty verdict for violating PEN 451 will negatively affect your firearm ownership rights. Arson under this statute is a felony, and the law bars convicted felons from possessing or buying a gun. Therefore, on top of prison incarceration and court fines, you will lose your right to own a firearm.

Arson Offender Registration

When you have a conviction for malicious arson, aggravated arson, or attempted arson and the judge imposes at least a ten-year prison sentence, you risk additional consequences. First, the court can order you to enlist as an arson offender. Consequently, you must notify the local authorities of your whereabouts whenever you move.

Just because your name appears on the arson offender register should not make your situation hopeless. Our attorneys can help obtain a rehabilitation certificate, after which the court will terminate the registration obligation.

Arson Legal Defenses

The consequences of an arson conviction are life-changing. However, our attorneys at the Monterey Criminal Attorney will work hard to have the charges reduced or dismissed. The DA has the burden of proof and must demonstrate that your actions were willful and malicious, which is challenging. We will use this chance to show the court that the fire incident lacked malice. The defense strategies we will mount are:

  1. The Fire Incident Was Not Deliberate or Willful

During prosecution, the DA can only secure a guilty verdict if they demonstrate your actions were willful and malicious. Therefore, it is a valid defense to argue that you did not start the fire knowingly or with malicious intent. Instead, the fire incident was accidental, and your actions lacked the malice or willfulness necessary to satisfy PEN 451.

  1. You Lacked Intentions to Defraud

Typically, you cannot be guilty of arson for burning your property unless the DA can show that you planned on defrauding your insurer if you have fire protection coverage or another individual sustained injury from the fire incident. Therefore, if this is the motive the prosecutor has against you for the fire incident, you can claim that you lacked the intent or reason to commit insurance fraud. Your attorney can assert that you made a mistake in your judgment and that the incident was accidental. Filing an insurance claim after the incident is not sufficient to demonstrate that you set fire to the property to acquire insurance benefits.

However, you must speak to a defense attorney early in the case to conduct an independent investigation to establish the actual cause of the fire. If the fire's origin was a fireplace spark or an electric short circuit caused by spilled water, you could prove to the court that it was an accident and you did not plan to benefit from an insurance claim illegally.

Fire incidents can stem from many causes, although the police and DA often jump to the most straightforward conclusion that it was arson. Therefore, you can cite many other fire causes, like faulty wiring, defective electric appliances, harsh weather, and electric surges. Any of these could cause the fire, and it is up to your attorney to prove so.

  1. Insufficient Proof

Proving intent on arson charges involves the use of circumstantial evidence. Direct evidence is usually lacking in these cases. When available, it is typically footage of you starting the fire or a witness who saw you set fire to the property. The evidence is not enough to secure a guilty verdict, allowing your attorney to argue that the proof presented by the DA falls short of the evidentiary standard of beyond moral certainty.

When the prosecutor relies on circumstantial proof, they should show that a sober person could infer that you committed the arson. The circumstantial evidence the DA presents includes:

  • Your online search history regarding how to set fire to property.
  • Evidence that you had intent to engage in the crime.
  • Proof that you were seeking revenge.
  • Physical evidence, like having gasoline containers.
  • Testimony from an individual who witnessed you start the fire.

The circumstantial evidence only helps the jury or judge infer or conclude that you committed the crime, but it is not complete proof to show you are guilty. An experienced attorney can use this to your advantage and poke holes in its reliability.

  1. False Allegations

It is not uncommon for witnesses to give false testimony linking you with arson. Usually, these cases are motivated by jealousy, spite, or payback. False allegations can lead to a wrongful conviction if you lack proper legal representation. You need an attorney to cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses and claim false accusations if there is no evidence to back up the testimony.

Alternatively, you can assert that the false accusations are due to a mistaken identity. A witness can mistakenly identify you as the arsonist, leading to a wrongful arrest and count. Also, it could be that your personal property was found at the scene of the arson, causing the investigators to believe you are the one who started the fire. Whatever the reason for the false allegations, an experienced attorney can help uncover the truth and prove your innocence.

Arson-related Offenses

Several criminal charges end up in plea deals. Arson is no different. Considering the high likelihood of insufficient evidence in arson cases, the prosecutor can introduce additional charges so that if they fail to convict you of the baseline offense, they can charge you with another crime.

The DA wants a win by all means, and they could be willing to reduce the arson charges to a lesser offense if you agree to plead guilty during plea bargaining. The counts the prosecutor can introduce in addition to or alongside arson are:

California Murder

Ending the life of another person or fetus, according to PEN 187, is murder. If your actions were premeditated, the prosecutor charges you with first-degree murder. In the case of arson, the prosecutor can file an additional count of first-degree murder if the fire incident killed a person. The DA will argue that your actions to kill the person were premeditated.

Premeditation, or malice aforethought, refers to your state of mind at the time of murder. The prosecutor will show that you planned on killing a person or that you were aware that your actions of setting fire to property risked people’s lives. A guilty verdict for this offense will attract twenty-five years of life incarceration or life imprisonment without parole.

California Burglary

Per PEN 459, burglary means gaining access to a business, residential premises, or a locked car to engage in petty or grand theft once inside. Therefore, when you break into a property and start a fire once you are inside, you risk both arson and burglary charges. Burglary can be first-degree, otherwise called residential burglary, or second-degree, which is the unlawful entry into a commercial property.

When prosecuting burglary charges, the DA must demonstrate that:

  • You gained access to a building, locked vehicle, or room.
  • You had intent to commit theft or a felony after entry.

Also, the following facts must be actual:

  • The value of the property you planned on stealing was at least $950.
  • The building you broke into was not a commercial premise.
  • You entered a commercial building, but after business hours,.

If the prosecutor secures a conviction, the penalties the court will impose depend on the degree of the violation. A 1st-degree burglary attracts:

  • 24, 48, or 72 months of prison incarceration.
  • The court imposed fines of no more than $10,000.
  • Formal probation in place of prison incarceration.

The penalties for a 2nd-degree burglary depend on whether the count is a felony or misdemeanor. A misdemeanor conviction attracts at most twelve months in jail and court fines not exceeding $1,000. Sometimes, the judge can sentence you to informal probation instead of jail incarceration.

A guilty verdict for a felony count attracts 16, 24, or 36 months of jail and, at most, $10,000 in court monetary fines. Alternatively, the court can sentence you to formal probation instead of serving time in jail.

Find a Competent Property Crimes Defense Attorney Near Me

You should partner with a competent attorney when you face criminal counts like arson. A guilty verdict for the offense has severe consequences, like expensive fines and incarceration. At the Monterey Criminal Attorney, we understand these ramifications and will work tirelessly to prevent a guilty verdict or obtain lenient punishment. Contact us today at 831-574-1791 to schedule a zero-obligation consultation.