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 nation. Those convicted of this crime can even be subjected to a statewide arson registry similar to that used to track sex offenders. With so many dramatic 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 penal codes covering arson. The less serious form of arson involves unintentionally starting a fire. These charges are covered by California Penal Code section 452 (PC), which details the act of “reckless burning.” Though the fires in these situations may have been set unintentionally, the individuals charged with these crimes acted recklessly, causing a blaze that burned a structure, property, or forest land.
When most people think of arson, they imagine someone purposefully starting a blaze. These acts of arson are filed under Penal Code section 451 (PC) and must be willful and malicious, meaning they were performed with the intention to do harm.
Under both penal codes, it is legal to burn your own property as long as the fire does not spread, no one else is injured, and you did not start the fire intending to commit fraud (such as insurance fraud).
What is the Difference Between 451 and 452 (PC)?
When a fire that burns down a structure, property, or forest land was started accidentally or intentionally with a legal intent, the charges will be filed as 452 (PC).On the other hand, if someone purposefully starts a fire, hoping it will cause harm to someone or something, they can be charged with 451 (PC).
Examples of situations that could result in charges under 452 (PC) include:
- Someone throws a cigarette out of their car, causing a forest fire
- A person trying to do a controlled burn to wipe out the weeds in their backyard without a burn plan, control lines, or any other efforts to control the blaze ends up setting their neighbor’s home on fire
- A group of partiers lighting fireworks in a patch of dry grass, starting a fire that spreads into the neighboring area
Examples of arson that would be filed under 451 (PC) include:
- A person setting the shed of their neighbor on fire
- Someone intentionally starting a fire in their home to collect insurance money
- A group of teens starting a fire in the bathroom of their school
Is Arson a Felony in California?
True arson crimes, meaning those filed under 451 (PC), are always felonies. However, reckless burning charges are considered a wobbler, meaning they can be filed as a misdemeanor or felony.
In most cases, reckless burning is a misdemeanor punishable by no more than six months in jail. But if the property burned is a structure or forestland or if the fire causes great bodily injury, the charges may be filed as a misdemeanor or felony. When the crime is charged as a misdemeanor, the penalty includes up to 1 year in jail. As a felony, the sentence includes up to six years in prison.
Malicious arson is always a felony in California, and the penalty will vary based on the specific circumstances:
- If the fire burned personal property, the offense carries a maximum sentence of 3 years in state prison
- When a structure or forest land is burned, the maximum penalty is 6 years in prison
- If an inhabited structure or property is damaged by malicious arson, the maximum sentence goes up to 8 years
- When someone is injured by the blaze or while trying to escape the fire, the maximum penalty is 9 years in prison.
In addition to incarceration, all forms of malicious arson can result in up to $60,000 in fines and even more if the fire was set for financial gain. Willful arson is considered a serious violent crime, meaning it will result in a strike being added to your criminal record under the three strikes law.
Those convicted of arson or reckless burning will also be expected to pay for the damages caused by the fire. Because fires can easily cause millions of dollars in damages, arson charges are some of the most costly criminal offenses in California.
Enhanced Penalties for Arson Charges
Some crimes filed under 451 (PC) can carry even more serious penalties, ranging from 10 years to life imprisonment. These aggravated arson charges can be filed when:
- the defendant already has a felony arson conviction on their record
- a device was used to accelerate the fire or delay its ignition
- more than one person was injured
- more than one structure was burned
- emergency personnel, such as police or firefighters, were injured
Other things that might result in additional penalties include:
- setting fire to a place of worship, such as a church (these cases are also likely to include hate crime enhancements)
- setting a fire in retaliation against the owner of a property
- having a prior arson conviction, including a misdemeanor charge, in the last 10 years
If you are convicted of one of these crimes and are sentenced to 10 years or more in prison, you also must be added to the California convicted arson offender registration list. An aggravated arson attorney in San Diego can help you get removed from this registry 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 establish the motive of the suspected arsonist so they can learn if the crime was committed to hide evidence, to get revenge against another person, to commit insurance fraud, or for another other purpose.
Because so many other crimes, such as murder, fraud, and domestic abuse, can be committed along with the act of arson, fires that may have been started intentionally are always thoroughly investigated, sometimes over the course of multiple years. Charges are typically only filed after the 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 lawyer immediately to ensure their rights are protected during the investigation and trial process.
What is the Best Defense for Arson?
The best defense for this crime varies greatly from one case to another, so it is always advisable to speak with a San Diego arson attorney before attempting to defend yourself from these serious charges. Defenses that may be effective against arson charges include:
- The fire wasn’t an act of arson
- Someone else started the fire
- While you did start a fire on your own property, it was not to commit fraud
- You started the fire on accident, not maliciously
- There was no negligence, so you are not guilty under 452 (PC)
- The statute of limitations has expired
- There is insufficient evidence against you
- No property, structures, or forestland was burnt
- Evidence against you was collected in violation of your constitutional rights
A skilled arson lawyer in San Diego may even be able to work with independent investigators to uncover evidence to support your case or undermine the arguments made by the prosecution.
Sometimes, the best defense is a plea bargain negotiated on your behalf by your San Diego attorney that can minimize the sentencing or level of arson charges you will face.
If you have any questions or want to schedule a free initial consultation with attorney Peter M. Liss, please call (760) 643-4050 today.