In legal terms, arson is defined as the willful and malicious burning or charring of property, or a structure. In the past, it was only considered arson if the person who committed the burning set fire to a house, or the residence of another. However, arson laws have now expanded to cover other types of property. This includes:
- Commercial property;
- Forest land;
- Boats; and
- Personal property, with some states clarifying that the property must be worth over $25, such as laptops, rare books, etc.
Arson statutes generally classify arson as a felony offense, because of the potential types of serious injury or even death that may result from the act of arson. A felony is a crime that is considered to be more serious in nature, and is generally punishable by more than one year of imprisonment in a federal facility. Arson laws exist in every state, although there are some distinctions between how each state’s law punishes or categorizes arson as a crime.
In general, the elements of arson include:
- Intent: The crime may only be classified as arson if the person intentionally burned property belonging to another person, without that person’s permission and consent. What this means is that a person may not be convicted of arson if they accidentally set fire to something;
- Recklessness: Some states consider a crime to be arson if the person also damaged property belonging to another person as a result of being reckless. Additionally, the arsonist must have been aware that their actions were dangerous, and could cause dangerous results; and
- Property Damage: In order for the crime to be considered arson, the property that was burned must have actually been damaged as a result of the action. There must have been some type of charring or destruction of the property for the defendant to be guilty of arson. If no damage resulted from the defendant’s actions, no arson was committed.
If a person intentionally sets fire to and burns down their home or building, for the purpose of insurance fraud or any other purpose, they will still be found guilty of arson. Previously, arson laws only applied to setting fire to the house of another person. However, there are now many types of arson laws in place to prevent people from intentionally and fraudulently causing fire.
What Are the Different Degrees of Arson?
As previously mentioned, many states have placed different degrees on the crime of arson. The degrees of arson differ by state and are often based on different factors. Some general factors that states consider when establishing differing degrees of arson include:
- The type of building burned. For example, burning a house, school, or church is typically considered to be a worse type of arson than burning an abandoned building;
- The value of the building burned;
- The proximity of other people to the structure that was burned. For example, burning a building in an area where people are more likely to be hurt is considered to be worse than burning a building in a deserted area; and
- Whether the arsonist paid or accepted payment for the burning of the building.
Most states classify their degrees of arson as such:
- First Degree: The arsonist set fire to an occupied home or building;
- Second Degree: The arsonist set fire to an empty or abandoned structure; or
- Third Degree: The arsonist set fire to an abandoned area of space, such as a vacated lot or field.
What Are the Consequences of Arson?
Higher degrees of arson will generally result in more strict punishments and penalties. Additionally, punishments and penalties will also be dependent on the amount of damage that occured to the property, as well as if there were any injuries or deaths resulting from the arson. Depending on the degree of arson, as well as the law of the state in which the arson was committed, some possible consequences of arson could include:
- A Felony Charge: Felony crimes are generally punished by prison time of over one year, to be served in a federal facility as opposed to a state or county jail. Felonies may also be punished with fines and penalties, as well as restitution paid to the victim;
- A Misdemeanor Charge: If the arson was not considered especially dangerous or reckless, with a lower level of harm caused, it may be treated as a misdemeanor as opposed to a felony. Punishments for a misdemeanor crime could include time spent in a county jail facility as well as criminal fines;
- A Civil Lawsuit: The arson’s victim may be entitled to sue the arsonist in civil court. The arsonist may be ordered to pay monetary damages for the victim’s injuries and medical expenses; and/or
- Other Consequences: If other crimes were involved in the arson, those crimes may be punished individually according to state law. An arsonist could face homicide charges if anyone was killed as a direct result of the arson. Another potential arson consequence could be probation.
Do I Need an Attorney for Arson?
If you have been accused of committing arson, it is in your best interests to speak with a skilled and knowledgeable criminal defense attorney immediately. An experienced criminal defense attorney will inform you of your rights, as well as any possible defenses available to you based on the specifics of your case. Finally, an attorney may also represent you in court as needed.