Arson is a grave offense under California laws. There are various types of crimes related to arson. In most cases, charges related to arson are considered felonies and attract hefty fines, lengthy prison sentences, or being registered for a lifetime as an arsonist.
While the laws remain stringent on defendants, you have a right to representation in court or seeking justice. You should hire a criminal defense attorney immediately if you face such charges. The Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney will be happy to represent and protect you in a Los Angeles court.
What is Arson Under California Laws?
Two statutes explain arson in California. These are under Penal Code 451 and 452, as described below. Under Penal Code 451, you are guilty of arson when you willfully or maliciously sets fire to, burns or causes to be burned, aids, counsels, or procures the burning of any structure, forest land, or property.
Penal Code 452 states that you are guilty of unlawfully causing a fire when you recklessly sets fire to or burns or causes to be burned, any structure, forest land, or property. When charged, the prosecution will draw their allegations from the two categories. You may be arrested and charged for malicious arson or reckless burning.
(a) Malicious Arson?
Malicious arson is a serious crime under the law in California. It entails the willful burning of a structure, forest land, or property. In most cases, this intentional burning has the aspect of injuring someone, damaging someone's stuff out of spite, revenge, or annoyance, or burning property with the sole intention of defrauding an insurance company. It is composed of two major elements:
- You set fire and burned property, forest land, or structure
- You did so willfully and with malicious intent
You Set Fire and Burned Property
Under the California law, something is considered destroyed or damaged with fire when one sets fire to or burns it. Such may be a structure, property, or forest land, causing partial or minor damage or injury to someone.
Structures are defined as the general family of buildings, bridges, tents, meaning they can be human-made or naturally occurring.
Property is a broad term that refers to clothes, automobiles, furniture, appliances, documents, stamp collection, or anything else that can be referred to as personal property such as land, but not forest land. To qualify as an arson crime, the property in question must belong to someone other than you.
However, you may still be charged for arson if you burn personal property with the intent of defrauding an insurance company or another person so that you benefit from the proceeds of insurance claims, or if someone was injured in the process or their property was destroyed.
Forest land refers to bushes, grasslands, wetlands, plains, trees, or land covered with brush. If you set fire on such grounds, you will face arson charges and those related to arson offenses.
You Set Fire Maliciously and Willingly
A willful act is one done out of willingness and purpose. Therefore, as proven by the prosecution, it is more of a mental requirement that your actions resulted from intentional conduct. A malicious act is one done with the sole aim of inflicting harm or injury or generally doing a wrongful act. If determined by the prosecution that your actions weren’t malicious and willful, they may file charges of reckless burning, which are a wobbler and fall under a misdemeanor.
(b) Reckless Burning under Penal Code 452
You may only be charged under Penal Code 451 if it is proven that you intentionally caused the fire or burned property, structures, or forestland. However, your charges will fall under Penal Code 452 if the action is proven reckless. Summarily, Penal Code 452 PC draws its definition from two key elements:
- The defendant unlawfully caused the fire or burned a property, forest land, or a structure, and
- He or she did so with recklessness.
Note that you are only considered to have acted with recklessness if you did so with full knowledge that the action would cause aggravated risk by causing fire or burning property. It further implies that your actions were out of the ordinary of how someone reasonable would act if presented with the same situation. Therefore, negligence or carelessness may not fall under this category.
What Should the Prosecution Prove?
You Were Directly or Circumstantially Linked
The prosecution has to prove before a judge or a jury that you indeed were directly or circumstantially linked to the arson, to have a water-tight case. For instance, the prosecution must show that you started the fire intentionally, willfully, maliciously, and recklessly. It is because a fire started by accident might not necessarily be linked to you even if you were at the crime scene.
Substantial Corroborative Evidence Exist
Further, the prosecution must collect, collate, and produce tangible evidence in court, proving that you are the perpetrator of the crime. As a no-brainer, the team has the responsibility of connecting the dots at the crime scene, recording witness statements, and pinning together the witness’s testimonies relating the arson to you. The prosecution has to unequivocally submit to the effect that you are the correct perpetrator based on irrefutable evidence and convince the judge to secure a conviction.
It is not uncommon to find yourself wrongly arrested for arson offenses. The wrongful arrest will lead to a weak case by the prosecution, and your defense team can argue against such an arrest. The trial must identify you as the perpetrator either by the use of direct or circumstantial evidence. Laxity in the rules used during the investigation can make the case a wobbler leading to your acquittal or lesser penalties.
You Maliciously Started the Fire to Commit Fraud
Finally, the prosecution must prove that you started the fire out of malice, intending to commit fraud. Fires started as an accident are not considered to have been created out of malice. The prosecution should show without reasonable doubt that you wanted to defraud someone or an insurance agency so that you make unlawful insurance claims. These charges can be defended successfully by an experienced criminal defense attorney using the legal defenses below.
How are Arson Investigations Conducted?
Arson investigations might take a protracted amount of time. It is because evidence may be lost in the fire, leading to the investigating team taking a lengthy period in combing the crime scene and pinning together the evidence. The investigators' team consists of an elite squad primarily to use advanced systems that include chemical analysis to ascertain the inferno’s origin.
The team must understand the fire's cause to conclude that the incident was intentional or an accident, forming an essential element relied upon by the prosecution. Charges could be filed against an individual directly linked to the arson attack through witness statements to the effect that he or she saw the accused committing the crime. Further, the investigating team has to make conclusive remarks about how the arson act came to be and the possible motive.
Penalties and Sentencing for Arson in California
Penalties and sentencing for arson conviction depend on several factors. You may be convicted for malicious arson as per Penal Code 451 or for reckless burning as per Penal Code 452. Further, the sentencing depends on whether there was an injury to a second party during the act of arson.
You will also be processed for sentencing based on the property type burned or damaged during the action. At times, the court may order a psychiatric evaluation to determine your state of mind, which will lay the basis for your sentencing.
Below is an in-depth look at these penalties concerning the nature of the arson act.
Malicious or Willful Arson
Penal Code 451 categorizes malicious arson as a felony offense. You may be sentenced in relation to the circumstances that led to the arson and the specific properties burned. The prison terms are as follows:
- If you burned your property maliciously in which someone else's property was burned or damaged, you would be sentenced to prison for 16 months, two or three years.
- If you maliciously burn forest land or a non-inhabited structure, you will be sentenced to prison for 2 or 4 years, or at times up to 6 years.
- You maliciously burned and destroyed an inhabited structure or property. You will be sentenced to prison for 3, or 5, or at times up to 8 years.
- If someone suffered a bodily injury during the arson, you would receive 5, 7, or up to 9 years sentencing.
Under the Three Strikes Law in the California Penal Code, you may be handed a criminal record strike as an additional penalty. It is also possible to receive fines of as much as $10,000 or $50,000 or double the amount you would have been fined. Further, adults may be registered as arson offenders for life if convicted.
Per 452 PC, it is an offense to commit reckless burning, as it is classified as a misdemeanor, deeming it a wobbler. However, you may be convicted for a felony if the property damaged is forest land, or the burning caused great bodily harm or injury.
You may be jailed for six months or slapped with fines of as much as $1,000. As a wobbler, other penalties for reckless burning may include serving 2,3, or 4 or even up to 6 years for a felony offense in the state prison or be sentenced for up to 6 months for a misdemeanor offense.
Arson Offender Registration
Arson offender registration is a requisite for all persons who have faced malicious arson conviction or attempted malicious arson or aggravated arson that saw them handed ten years or more. Such persons are required to register and keep the law enforcement officers reliably informed of their whereabouts at all times. The only rebate may come by applying and being handed a rehabilitation certificate to enable you not to register as an offender.
There may be other penalties if you are charged under aggravated arson. The circumstances for these are as follows:
- The arson caused an injury to one or more individuals.
- Emergency personnel, such as firefighters, were injured.
- There were multiple destructions of structures.
- A device was used to accelerate the fire.
- You previously were convicted for a felony offense as per Penal Code 451 and 452
Aggravated arson can further have additional harsher penalties if you set a church, a mosque, a synagogue, or worship place on fire. You may also be penalized harshly if you maliciously set a property belonging to your landlord on fire as a form of retaliation. If you are convicted of arson or related offenses in the last ten years, you would as well be punished with a stiff penalty under California's laws.
Sentencing enhancement is possible if you set on fire a property whose value was more than $5,650,000. Such property value is after examining the losses and costs associated with it and the expenses incurred in extinguishing and containing the fire.
Consequences for Immigrants
Under Penal Code 451, it is a serious felony offense if convicted of arson and arson-related crimes when you’re an immigrant. In some cases, the conviction may call for deportation if the accused is not a US citizen. If deported, entry back into the US is impossible, and if you’re a resident legally, you might find it hard to be naturalized. However, through legal action, you might seek relief by removing proceedings if you qualify or apply for temporary protection through adjustment of status.
Common Legal Defenses for Arson Under California Law
There are several lines of arguments that your legal defense team can employ in a court of law. They are:
Insufficient or No Evidence
At times, arson cases have no witnesses, or in most cases, the evidence that the prosecution would have adduced in court is destroyed in the fire. Therefore, it is an arduous task on the trial side to prove these charges, as a conviction can only be arrived at after it is proven beyond any reasonable doubt that you committed the crimes. The prosecution has to rely on circumstantial or direct evidence.
Circumstantial and direct evidence has different aspects. Some of these aspects are: That the investigating team found gasoline or containers in your garage; proven motive that you had the ill will and intent to settle scores or linked to personal financial issues; evidence found on your computer that shows you conducted internet search on how to start a fire maliciously; revenge, or a witness who can testify that they saw you taking off from the scene of the crime.
Direct evidence has one aspect, where someone testifies that they saw you cause or start the fire. Such a person will be called to give evidence in court to identify you as the perpetrator of the crime. In circumstantial evidence, an inference may link to you, or a conclusion arrived at pointing to you as the perpetrator of the said crime.
While circumstantial evidence might not be the only reason that could constitute a conviction, it's evidence is treated with the same strength as direct evidence. If such evidence is robust and proved beyond a reasonable doubt, you will be convicted. If the prosecution fails to produce compelling evidence that links you directly to the act of malicious arson or reckless burning, you can’t be held liable for such offenses.
It wasn't Arson but an Accident
A fire started by accident cannot constitute arson charges against you. If a fire started as a result of an accident, then there was no willful, malicious intent on your part. The harshest it can be is being charged for reckless burning under Penal Code 452 of California laws.
However, this defense line doesn't stand if you were under drugs’ influence or were intoxicated. And while it cannot count as malicious intent as you weren't in the right state of mind to understand or appreciate the risks, you will be charged for a misdemeanor, falling under reckless burning.
Forensic evidence adduced in court can be challenged by your defense attorney, and argue that it is inaccurate or put together using old and outdated practices. And that in totality, the evidence was assumptive.
Mistaken identity is a common reason for false accusations in arson charges. A witness may mistakenly identify you, claiming that you are the perpetrator of the arson, or your belongings may be at the crime scene. In some cases, the real perpetrator might have been involved in starting the fire, accusing you falsely as the one who started it to hide from the law. With a good criminal defense team, you may be acquitted from arson charges based on the argument that you were wrongly placed at the crime scene by the prosecution through false accusations.
There was No Probable Cause
According to the U.S constitution, the police can only arrest or detain a suspect if they have probable cause as per the Fourth Amendment. For instance, if you are arrested for contravening Penal Code 452, and the law enforcement officers cannot show probable cause, it is possible to have all evidence put together after the arrest expunged from the case. Such exclusion may lead to the dropping of the charges and your acquittal.
What are the Offenses Related to Arson?
In the state of California, there are various offenses charged alongside arson, as enumerated below:
Under Penal Code 459, it is illegal to enter or access one's property without their permission or consent, to commit a felony. You will be charged with both burglary and arson in this case, thus accessing one's property to commit arson maliciously, since malicious arson is a felony offense.
Penal Code 602 draws down the laws that define trespassing and summarizes that it is illegal to gain access or enter another person's property without their permission. You will face trespassing charges if you enter the land or property set on fire.
While burning your property is not considered an arson offense, burning the same to commit fraud is a crime. If proven that you set your stuff on fire to make an insurance claim, you will be charged with arson and related offenses.
Whether you intended or did not intend to kill someone in the course of perpetrating arson, you would be charged with first-degree murder if a person was killed in action. First-degree murder is considered a severe crime under the law and carries heavy penalties. As a rider on malicious arson charges, you will have a possible life-in-prison sentence and may not be handed parole, or you may face the maximum sentencing of the death penalty.
Find a Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me
California considers arson a severe crime and attracts hefty punishment under Penal Code 451 and 452. You may find yourself in contravention of these laws and be charged with arson or arson-related offenses. It would be best to contact an experienced and knowledgeable criminal defense attorney who will defend you in court. Your attorney will tirelessly fight for your rights and ensure that your charges are dropped or lowered.
At The Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney, we have lawyers with vast experience in arson and arson-related offenses. We will be happy to represent you in a Los Angeles court. We could quickly build a robust legal defense based on circumstances surrounding your case and ensure you find justice. Do not hesitate to call us at 310-564-2605 to talk to our legal defense team and begin preparing efficient defense strategies.