California has one of the longest wildfire seasons in the country, and it continues to get longer every year, which is why the state also has some of the strictest arson laws in the country. Those convicted of the crime could even be subject to a statewide arson registry, similar to that used to track sex offenders. With so many serious consequences, anyone accused of arson in San Diego should contact a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.
California arson laws
California has two main criminal statutes covering arson. The less serious form of arson involves unintentionally starting a fire. These charges are covered under California Penal Code Section 452, which details the act of “reckless arson.” Although the fires in these situations may have been set unintentionally, the individuals charged with these crimes acted recklessly, causing a fire that burned a structure, property, or woodland.
When most people think of arson, they imagine someone intentionally starting a fire. These acts of arson are filed under Article 451 of the Penal Code and must be intentional and malicious, meaning they were carried out with the intent to cause harm.
Under both criminal laws, it is legal to burn your own property as long as the fire does not spread, no one else is injured, and you do not set the fire with the intent to commit fraud (such as insurance fraud).
What is the difference between 451 and 452 (PC)?
When a fire occurs that accidentally or intentionally burns a building, property or forest land with legal intent, charges will be filed as 452 (PC). On the other hand, if someone intentionally starts a fire, hoping that it will cause harm to someone or something, they can be charged with 451 (PC).
Examples of situations that may result in a 452 (PC) charge include:
- Someone threw a cigarette from their car, starting a forest fire
- A person who attempts to conduct a controlled burn to eliminate weeds in his backyard without a burn plan, control lines, or other efforts to control the fire ends up setting his neighbor’s house on fire.
- A group of parties ignite fireworks in a patch of dry grass, starting a fire that spreads through the surrounding area
Examples of arson that will be filed under 451(PC) include:
- A person sets fire to his neighbor’s house
- Someone intentionally started a fire in his house to collect insurance money
- A group of teenagers set fire to their school bathroom
Is arson a felony in California?
True arson crimes, i.e. those filed under 451(PC), are always felonies. However, reckless arson charges are considered volatile, meaning they can be filed as a misdemeanor or a felony.
In most cases, reckless arson is a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for no more than six months. But if the property burned was a structure or brush or if the fire caused great bodily injury, charges may be filed as a misdemeanor or felony. When the crime is charged as a misdemeanor, the penalty includes up to one year in prison. As a felony, the penalty is up to six years in prison.
Arson is always a felony in California, and the penalty will vary based on the specific circumstances:
- If the fire burns personal property, the maximum penalty for the crime is 3 years in state prison
- When burning a building or forest land, the maximum penalty is 6 years imprisonment
- If an inhabited building or property is damaged by arson, the maximum penalty is up to 8 years
- When someone is injured in a fire or while trying to escape from a fire, the maximum penalty is 9 years in prison.
In addition to imprisonment, all forms of arson can result in fines of up to $60,000 and more if the fire is set for financial gain. Arson is a serious violent crime, which means it will result in a strike being added to your criminal record under the three strikes law.
Those convicted of arson or reckless arson are also expected to pay compensation for damages caused by the fire. Because fires can easily cause millions of dollars in damage, arson charges are among the most costly criminal offenses in California.
Increased penalties for arson charges
Some crimes filed under 451 (PC) can carry more serious penalties, ranging from 10 years to life in prison. These arson charges can be filed when:
- The defendant already has a felony arson conviction on his record
- A device was used to accelerate or delay the ignition of the fire
- More than one person was injured
- More than one building was burned
- Emergency personnel, such as police or firefighters, were injured
Other things that may result in additional penalties include:
- Setting fire to a place of worship, such as a church (these cases will also likely include hate crime enhancements)
- Setting a fire in retaliation against the property owner
- Having a previous arson conviction, including a misdemeanor charge, in the past 10 years
If you are convicted of one of these crimes and sentenced to 10 or more years in prison, you must also be added to the California Registry of Convicted Arson Offenders. A San Diego arson lawyer can help you get removed from this register if you obtain a certificate of rehabilitation.
How thorough are arson investigations in San Diego?
Arson cases are investigated by special police units and insurance investigators. Both groups collect as much evidence as possible so they can determine the arson suspect’s motive so they can tell if the crime was committed to hide evidence, to retaliate against another person, to commit insurance fraud, or for some other purpose. .
Because many other crimes, such as murder, fraud, and domestic violence, can be committed alongside arson, fires that may have been started intentionally are almost always investigated thoroughly, sometimes over several years. Charges are usually brought only after police and prosecutors believe they have sufficient evidence to secure a conviction. As a result, anyone accused of arson should contact a San Diego defense attorney immediately to ensure their rights are protected during the investigation and trial process.
What is the best defense for arson?
The best defense to this crime varies greatly from case to case, so it is always recommended to speak with a San Diego arson lawyer before attempting to defend yourself from these serious charges. Defenses that may be effective against arson charges include:
- The fire was not an intentional act
- Someone else started the fire
- Even though you started a fire on your own property, it was not for the purpose of fraud
- I started the fire by accident, not on purpose
- There was no negligence, so you are not guilty under Section 452 (PC).
- The statute of limitations has expired
- There is not enough evidence against you
- No property, buildings or forest land was burned
- The evidence was collected against you in violation of your constitutional rights
A skilled San Diego fire attorney may be able to work with independent investigators to uncover evidence that supports your case or undermines the arguments made by the prosecution.
Sometimes, the best defense is a plea deal negotiated on your behalf by your San Diego attorney that can reduce the sentence or level of the arson charges you will face.
If you have any questions or would like to schedule a free initial consultation with attorney Peter M. Liss, please call (760) 643-4050 today.