While arson is a serious charge in any state, in California the penalties are particularly harsh given the area’s history with dangerous wildfires. This is why it is so important for anyone who is under investigation for this serious crime to contact a top San Diego arson lawyer as soon as possible.
Arson Charges in California
All arson charges are serious felonies, but the type and severity of potential punishment for these crimes will vary based on intention, location and whether or not anyone was injured. The least serious form of arson is that of reckless burning. Reckless burning occurs when someone recklessly causes a fire that sets fire to a structure, property or forest land. While the fire itself may have been started unintentionally, it has to be due to reckless behavior, such as throwing a cigarette into a field filled with dried out shrubs. Reckless burning is a misdemeanor in most cases, punishable by up to 6 months in jail. But if the property burned is a structure or forestland, or if it causes great bodily injury, it may be a misdemeanor or felony punishable by up to 1 year in jail if charged as a misdemeanor or up to 6 years when charged as a felony.
When arson was purposeful, it is known as malicious arson. Arson must be willful and malicious, meaning with the intention to do harm, to fall under this category. Malicious arson is always a felony and in California, the penalty will vary based on the specific circumstances. If it involved personal property, it carries a maximum sentence of 3 years in prison, but it is worth noting that it is legal to burn your own property as long as the fire does not spread, no one else was injured and you did not do so with the intention to commit fraud (such as insurance fraud).
If the crime involves a structure or forest land, it can carry a maximum sentence of 6 years in prison. If the structure or property was inhabited, the maximum sentence can involve up to 8 years imprisonment. If bodily injury occurs, the maximum sentence is 9 years in prison. All forms of malicious arson can also result in up to $60,000 in fines and even more if the fire was set for financial gain.
It’s worth mentioning that a settlement of arson charges will also include repayment for damages.
Enhanced Penalties for Arson Charges
Aggravated arson is an even more serious and carries a sentence of 10 years to life. This occurs when:
- the defendant already has a felony arson conviction on their record
- if 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
- 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 malicious or aggravated arson, you will receive a strike on your record that will be used against you if you are ever charged with a crime in the future. If you are convicted in one of these crimes and are sentenced to 10 years or more in prison, you also must be added to the convicted arson offender registration, which is similar to the sex offender registry only for arsonists. An arson attorney in San Diego can help you get removed from this registry if you obtain a certificate of rehabilitation.
Arson cases are investigated by special police units and insurance investigators. Both groups will 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 will be thoroughly investigated, sometimes over the course of multiple years. That is why it is so important that anyone accused of arson immediately contact a lawyer as soon as possible to ensure your rights are protected during the investigation and trial process.
With over 35 years of experience, I can help you fight this serious crime by performing an independent investigation on your behalf and by examining the prosecution’s evidence to ensure it has been collected legally. If you have any questions or would like to schedule a free initial consultation, please call (760) 643-4050 today.
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