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The Basics of Arson Charges in California

By Criminal Defense Attorney on September 19, 2018

Deliberately setting fire to anything in California is a serious offense. Our hot and dry climate has lots of things ready to burn, and firefighters always seem to be battling wildfire season. As such, when a person sets a fire that gets out of control, whether in a structure, on land, or to property, he will face severe penalties.

The penalties vary depending on the type of arson that has been committed. In California, there are two main arson charges: malicious arson and reckless arson. The difference between these charges lies in the person’s intent.

But, even an accidental fire can end with you in jail. Anyone charged with arson in San Diego needs to speak to an arson defense attorney as soon as possible.

Malicious Arson

Malicious arson is addressed in California Penal Code 451 and is described as setting fire to a building, forest land, or other property willfully or maliciously. For someone to be convicted of this crime, the prosecution must prove that the accused did set fire to a structure, forest land, or other type of property; and that he did so willfully, or with malicious intent. The term “willfully” refers to the intent of the accused. If the fire was set on purpose, it was willful. “Maliciously” refers to committing arson in order to defraud, annoy, or injure another person.

To be charged with this crime, a person does not need to burn an entire property. The property does not need to be completely destroyed. Setting fire to just a portion of a property can constitute a malicious arson charge.

Under California law, the term “structure” includes more than just buildings. Bridges, tunnels, power plants, and tents can also be considered structures. The term “property” includes any personal property of another person. This can include vehicles, furniture, clothing, or land that is not considered to be forest land, such as a farm.

Typically, the property being burned has to belong to someone else and cannot be the accused’s own property. The only exception to this is when the accused burned his own property in an attempt to defraud someone, or if another person was injured due to the fire.

Reckless Arson

Reckless arson, also sometimes referred to as reckless burning, is a less serious charge than malicious arson. For a person to be convicted of this crime, the prosecution must prove that the accused set fire to a structure, forest land, or property. The difference is that with reckless arson, the person must have acted recklessly.

Under California Penal Code 452, a person is reckless when he knew, or should have known, that his actions would result in a fire. He also ignored that risk, and his actions were different than a reasonable person’s in the same situation.

It is important to note that “reckless” in criminal law is distinct from negligence. For example, if someone forget to turn off her stove and a fire erupted, this would not be considered reckless. However, if someone threw a lit cigarette into an area of dry land, it would be considered reckless. Because that person should have known probability of fire, and still threw his cigarette into a dry area, he could be charged with reckless arson.

Penalties for Arson Charges

Because arson charges rely on the intent of the accused, a judge may order the accused to submit to a psychiatric or psychological evaluation before being sentenced. This will help the court determine how long of a sentence the accused must serve.

However, any arson charge is likely to result in jail or prison time. Malicious arson can carry penalties anywhere between 16 months to nine years in jail. A fine of $10,000 may also be applied in addition to other steep fines. The judge can add an additional $50,000 in fines or twice the amount of financial gain the accused was expected to gain from the fire, if it was set to defraud someone else.

Reckless arson can include one year in county jail, or up to four years in state prison if the crime is charged as a felony. Reckless arson also carries fines, although they will likely only be up to $1,000.

The Help of an Arson Defense Attorney

If you are ever suspected of starting a fire, be warned—California law enforcement takes these crimes very seriously. As a state with an annual wildfire season, California is ready to throw the book at anyone they think started a fire.

But our San Diego criminal defense lawyers at JD Law know that fire does not necessarily mean arson. We will fight for your rights and build a strong defense so you do not have to live with the consequences of an arson conviction for the rest of your life. Call us at (760) 630-2000 for a free consultation.

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