Many reasons can make a building, structure, or forest area fall victim to a fire incident. Some of these reasons are unintentional accidents, and others are a result of natural causes like lightning. Like in many other states in the U.S, if you start a fire intentionally or through negligent actions in California, you could be charged with a serious violent crime known as arson.
Fires can cause incalculable damage to people's properties, environment, and even bodily injuries or death, making the penalties of this crime severe to act as a warning for anyone with those kinds of thoughts. When you or someone you know faces arson charges, seek a criminal defense lawyer’s services for legal representation through the whole prosecution process to avoid a wrongful conviction or possible penalties.
At the Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer, we can spot key legal issues and find loopholes in the prosecutor's case to use to achieve the best possible outcome for your criminal charge. Don't hesitate to contact us as soon as the police start investigating you for arson to know how you can maneuver these charges.
What it Means to Commit an Arson in California
According to California Penal Code 451 PC, you will be guilty of an arson charge if you willfully and maliciously start a fire, counsel, aid, or procure the burning of any property, structure, or forest land. To burn or set fire means to destroy or damage something with fire either wholly or partially, regardless of how small it is.
For the sake of this law, to act maliciously means you started a fire on a structure, property, or forest area with an unlawful intent to annoy, defraud, or injure someone. You would not be guilty of arson for starting a fire on your property unless you did so with the intent to defraud your insurer or injure someone.
Under California arson laws, the word property could mean any personal property, including land, clothing, trash, or motor vehicle. On the other hand, a structure could be any of the following:
- Public tent
- Power plant
Several reasons can trigger a person to commit arson activities. A person may choose to start a fire on a building, forest land, or structure for the following reasons:
- Mischief – Some people can start a fire out of malice to harm others, meaning their intentions are unreasonable. This action is punishable as a felony.
- Monetary incentives – California law recognize that people can choose to start a fire on their properties to receive financial proceeds from their insurers. Setting your house on fire to receive monetary compensation from your insurer is a form of insurance fraud and is punishable as a felony.
- Conceal a crime – Sometimes, people can choose to start a fire on a building or a vehicle with intentions to clear some criminal evidence like DNA.
- Retaliation – It is also possible for individuals to engage in arson activities as a way of revenge
If the prosecutor convinces the judge that you had any of the above intentions or motives during the commission of the crime, you may face very harsh penalties. In California, arson charges are quite severe in terms of penalties, especially if your actions show recklessness and disregard for human life.
Don't hesitate to contact a reliable lawyer who can fight for your legal rights and future because the consequences of arson in California are very severe and can also lead to deportation consequences if you are a non-citizen.
Types of Arson Charges in California
Depending on the circumstances and nature of the fire incident, you might face any of the following types of arson charges in California:
Arson With Great Physical/Bodily Injury
Arson that leads to significant bodily injury is a separate crime as per California Penal Code 451. You would be liable for violating this statute if you intended to start the fire in a structure, building, or vehicle in question to cause bodily injury to an individual.
Arson of Inhabited Property or Structure
According to California Penal Code 451(b), starting a fire on an inhabited property or structure is unlawful and is punishable as arson. In contrast to California Penal Code 451, violation of this statute does not necessarily have to lead to bodily injury to be guilty of arson as long as there were inhabitants in the property during the time of the offense.
Simple arson is the simplest form of arson in California and involves willful and malicious burning of a structure or building. California Penal Code 451(d) defines this type of arson and is chargeable where there is little damage to the forest, property, or structure in question and there is no bodily harm at the fire scene.
You would be guilty of attempted arson under California Penal Code 455 if you tried or attempted to start a fire on a building, structure, or forest even if the intended damage was not successful as long as you tried to do so intentionally and maliciously.
California Penal Code 452 PC defines what constitutes reckless burning and the penalties. Reckless burning is a different offense from arson in California because you don't have to act willfully and maliciously to be guilty of the offense. The following crime elements must be present to incriminate you for violation of California Penal Code 452 PC reckless burning:
- You started or assisted in burning of a structure, forest, or property, and
- You did so recklessly.
The judge will find you guilty of this crime if you were aware that your actions pose a substantial risk of fire to the property, structure, or forest in question, but you ignored the risk anyway. For instance, throwing a burning cigarette on dry burning leaves, knowing it can cause a fire in the neighborhood, constitutes a reckless burning offense under California law.
California Penal Code 451.5 PC defines aggravated arson as a deliberate type of arson where someone starts a fire to injure one or more people in an inhabited dwelling or structure. Before charging you with aggravated arson, the judge will consider the following factors:
- Your prior conviction history for a violation of Penal Code 451 PC or 452 PC
- Number of occupants that were in the property or structure in question
- The type of devices you used to ignite or accelerate the fire
- Number of people suffering bodily injuries because of the fire
- Whether police or emergency personnel incurred injury because of the fire
- Whether the structure or building in question was a "place of worship" like church
- The number of buildings or structures that were damaged by the fire
If the above aggravating factors are present in your case situation and circumstances, the penalties you will face will be significantly harsher. For conviction of any of the above charges, the prosecutor must demonstrate to the judge the elements of crime in your alleged charge beyond a reasonable doubt.
For instance, for conviction of a violation of California Penal Code 451, the prosecutor must demonstrate to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that your actions of burning or aiding burning of a structure, forest land, or property in question were willful and malicious. Having a criminal defense attorney by your side during these challenging times can go a long way if you want to avoid or reduce the possible penalties of arson charges in California.
Penalties of an Arson Charge in California
Malicious and willful arson under California Penal Code 451 is a felony offense. The penalties for this offense depend on what was on fire and the circumstances of the offense. Here are potential penalties for various types of arson charges in California:
- Malicious arson of someone's property is punishable by sixteen, three or two months in the state prison (PC 451(d))
- Arson that causes bodily harm is punishable by five, seven, or nine years in the state prison (PC 451(a))
- Malicious arson of property or structure is punishable by three, five, or eight years in the state prison (PC 451(b))
- Malicious arson of a structure or forest land is punishable by two, four, or six years in the state prison (PC 451(c))
- Violation of California Penal Code 452 PC that makes it unlawful to recklessly burn another person's structure, building, or forest land is punishable by six months incarceration in the county jail and a fine amounting up to $1,000
- Planning or attempting arson is punishable by up to three years in the state prison (PC 455)
- An aggravated arson has the most severe form of punishment of all arson offenses. An aggravated arson can lead to a sentence enhancement of additional five years in the state prison on top of your underlying arson offense sentence (PC 451.5)
A conviction for an arson offense conviction can also lead to additional penalties apart from the prison sentence, for example:
- Restitution to the affected fire victims
- Possible strike on your criminal record according to California Three Strikes Law if the offense was malicious
- Registration as an arson offender
- Deportation and inadmissibility consequences if you are a non-citizen because arson falls under the category of crimes of moral turpitude.
Apart from serving a prison sentence for violation of California arson laws, a conviction of malicious arson in California can also lead to lifelong consequences that will affect where you can live in the U.S due to registration duties.
At Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer, we have experienced attorneys who can aggressively help you fight an arson charge for the best possible outcome out of the experience with different clients facing arson charges. Ensure you talk to an attorney you can depend on as soon as possible for the collection of the vital pieces of evidence surrounding the offense to build legal defense strategies.
Viable Legal Defense Arguments for an Arson Charge in California
A reliable criminal defense attorney might be able to raise several defense arguments to fight the arson charges on your behalf where your freedom is at stake. Below are viable legal defense arguments that a criminal defense attorney can use to fight an arson or reckless burning charge during the trial:
Your Acts Were Not Wilful or Intentional
Remember, for you to receive a conviction for arson, the judge must establish that you had wilful and malicious intent according to the prosecutor's supporting evidence.
Therefore, if you didn't have wilful or malicious intent when starting the fire on a building, stricture, vehicle, or forest land, the crime should not count as arson.
In this legal defense argument, your lawyer carries the burden of proof to convince the judge that you had no wilful or malicious intent during the occurrence of the fire or the fire was due to an accident.
The Cause of the Fire Was Due to Something Else Other than Arson
California lawmakers acknowledge that a fire can start in forest land, property, or structure due to something other than arson. Your criminal defense lawyer can argue that the fire leading to the damage of the property, forest land, or structure in question was possibly due to:
- Dangerous weather, for example, lightning.
- Old or faulty wiring
- Heating or cooking equipment
You Had no Intent to Defraud
Don't forget you could be convicted for an arson charge if the prosecutor can prove to the judge that your reason for starting the fire on your building was to receive monetary precedes from your insurer.
If your property had insurance coverage, it will be upon your lawyer to show the judge that you didn't intend to defraud your insurer because that would make you guilty of arson under California law.
There is usually no evidence or witnesses in most arson cases to prove that you started the fire. Although California criminal trials accept circumstantial evidence like containers of gasoline in your yard, it is not enough to prove that you are liable for the arson on the property, structure, or forest land in question.
During the trial, the prosecutor must demonstrate to the jury all elements of crime in your alleged arson charge beyond a reasonable doubt for conviction of the charge. Therefore, your lawyer can counter the charges against you during the trial by arguing that there is insufficient evidence to make you guilty of arson if the evidence the prosecutor has is circumstantial only.
Mistaken Identity/False Accusation
Several reasons can lead to a false accusation or wrongful arrest in a criminal charge like arson. For instance, an eyewitness can say that he/she saw your property or item at the property or structure in question shortly before the fire. The California justice system recognizes the possibility of false accusations in a criminal charge like arson, where someone wants to escape criminal liability.
Regardless of the reasons that led to your charges, a reliable criminal lawyer can show the judge that the charges against you resulted from false accusations or mistaken identification because of poor visibility, which is valid.
Other Offenses Related to Arson in California
Where there is insufficient evidence to incriminate you for violating California arson laws, the prosecutor may charge you with other related offenses such as:
First Degree Murder
A prosecutor may charge you with first-degree murder under California Penal Code 187 PC if there was a killing and the following elements of the crime are evident in your case:
- The killing was premeditated, deliberate, and wilful.
- You accomplished the killing with the use of armor-piercing ammunition or a destructive device.
- The killing invokes the felony murder rule.
A conviction for violation of California Penal Code 187 PC can lead to 25 years to life in the state prison or the death penalty.
According to California Penal Code 459 PC, when you illegally enter another person's property or premises with the intent of committing a felony crime like arson or theft, once inside, you will be guilty of burglary. Unlike arson, which applies to properties, structures, and forest land, burglary applies only to commercial and residential properties.
In California, first-degree burglary involving a residential property is punishable by a prison term of two, four, or six years. A burglary involving a commercial building is a wobbler offense, which the prosecutor can charge as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
If you are guilty of felony burglary, you will be subject to a prison term in the country jail for sixteen months, two, or three years. On the other hand, if the judge charges you with a misdemeanor burglary, your prison term will not exceed one year.
Find a Los Angeles Criminal Defense Lawyer Near Me
Arson or reckless burning in California is a violent crime that can lead to a significantly lengthy prison term and hefty fines you would not want to endure. Suppose you are facing charges of an arson charge or any other related offense. If that is the case, you must speak to an attorney. The Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer team is ready to fight the charges on your behalf to achieve the best possible outcome. Contact us today at 310-502-1314 to discuss the details of your case with our attorneys.