Arson is the willful and malicious charring or burning of property or a structure. In previous years, arson only occurred if an individual set fire to a home or a residence of another individual.

Arson laws, however, have been expanded to cover other types of property as well, including:

  • Commercial property;
  • Forest land;
  • Vehicles;
  • Boats; and
  • Personal property;
    • some states require that the property be worth over $25, such as:
      • laptops;
      • rare books; and
      • other items.

Arson statutes typically classify arson as a felony offense due to the potential of serious injury or death which may result from the act.

A felony is a crime which is more serious and is typically punishable by more than one year incarceration in a federal facility. Every state has arson laws on the books.

There are, however, some distinctions between how the laws in each state punish or categorize arson as a criminal offense. If an individual intentionally sets fire to and burns down a building or residence they own for insurance fraud or any other purpose, they may be found guilty of arson.

What is Arson of an Inhabited Structure?

Arson involves burning or setting fire to any:

  • Property;
  • Structure; or
  • Forest land.

In California, arson is classified as a wobbler crime, which means that it can be classified as either a misdemeanor or felony. The severity of the criminal sentence will be determined by the circumstances surrounding the arson incident.

Arson of an inhabited structure involves setting fire to or burning a structure where an individual resides. California defines a structure as a house or other type of structure, such as a commercial building or a public tent.

Structures are considered places where individuals live. A resident does not have to be in the structure at the time the arson occurs.

A defendant may still be charged with arson if the structure was used as a dwelling place.

What is the Punishment for Arson with an Inhabited Structure?

In California, arson may be classified as a felony that is punishable by 3 to 8 years in state prison. The punishment may depend on whether the arson was categorized as malicious, which means it was highly unintentional, with the intent to burn or damage the property.

An individual may be found guilty of malicious arson if they set fire to a structure or a property with the intent to do any of the following to another individual:

  • Defraud;
  • Annoy; or
  • Injure.

An individual may also be found guilty of malicious arson if they had the intent to commit a wrongful act, such as stealing items when a building is on fire. The penalties for malicious arson may include:

  • Up to 3 years in a state prison facility, not a county jail, for setting fire to another individual’s property;
  • Up to 6 years in prison for setting fire to uninhabited structures or designated forest lands;
  • Up to 8 years in prison for setting fire to a structure that is inhabited; and
  • Up to 9 years in prison for arson which results in an individual suffering serious bodily injury.

Malicious arson of an inhabited structure is one of the most serious categories of arson in California. The penalty, however, may be different if the court categorizes the arson differently.

For example, a court may determine that the arson was reckless instead of malicious. Reckless arson does not involve the same highly intentional conduct as malicious arson.

The criminal penalties for reckless arson in California may include:

  • Up to 1 year in county jail for setting fire to another individual’s property;
  • Up to 3 years in prison for setting fire to an uninhabited structure or to forest land;
  • Up to 4 years in prison for recklessly setting fire to a structure that is inhabited; and
  • Up to 6 years in a prison facility if the reckless arson caused serious bodily injury to another individual.

What are Aggravating Factors in a California Arson Case?

In California, reckless and malicious arson cases may be punished more severely if certain aggravating factors are present, similar to how a simple assault may become a more serious assault case if aggravating factors are present.

In arson cases, aggravating factors may include:

  • Burning of multiple structures;
  • Arson that causes serious harm to a firefighter or to a peace officer;
  • Having a previous arson conviction; or
  • Causing serious injury to more than one individual.

With malicious arson, if any aggravating factors are present, it may result in up to 5 additional years in prison. With reckless arson, the presence of an aggravating factor may result in up to 3 additional years in a county jail facility.

If a defendant set fire to a religious building, such as a church or temple, or if there are factors which clearly demonstrate that the arson was committed due to targeted hate, then a defendant may also be charged with a hate crime. Hate crimes are governed by federal and state law, however, state law may vary by state.

How is Insurance Fraud Related to Arson of an Inhabited Structure?

Many arson cases result from individuals setting fire to their own homes. This is often committed in an attempt to commit insurance fraud.

For example, an individual may attempt to set their own residence on fire and claim that it was caused by another factor. This may be done in an attempt to collect money from the insurance company for damages.

In these types of cases, arson penalties may be applied, as discussed above, if the court determines that the elements are met for the offense of arson of an inhabited structure or another arson crime.

Are There any Defenses to Arson of an Inhabited Structure?

There may be defenses available to an individual for an arson charge, depending on the circumstances. For example, it may be a defense if the defendant committed arson because of duress, which means that the individual was forced to commit the crime under a threat of harm.

For example, if an individual is forced to set fire to a building because they are being threatened with a knife by another individual, it would be considered duress. Another defense may be the intoxication defense, where the individual was intoxicated at the time of the arson.

Intoxication may serve as a defense because the defendant did not have the requisite intent to commit arson or they were unable to control their actions in some way, for example, if the individual was blacked out during the time of the fire.

This defense may be stronger if the individual was intoxicated against their will or without their knowledge. There are also various other defenses which may apply, depending on the situation.

Should I Contact a Lawyer about My Arson Charge?

In California, arson of an inhabited structure is a complex charge which may result in varying sentences, depending on the facts and circumstances of the case. It is in your best interest to consult with a California criminal lawyer if you are facing an arson charge.

Your lawyer can advise you of the possible punishments you may face as well as represent you in court. Your lawyer may also be able to negotiate with the prosecution for a reduced charge or sentence.