The definition of arson includes burning or setting fire to any property, structure, or forest land. In California, arson is a wobbler crime, which means that it can be classified as either a misdemeanor or felony. The state classifies the severity of the criminal sentence by the circumstances surrounding the arson.

Arson of an inhabited structure refers to burning or setting fire to a structure where someone resides. California uses the term “structure” to mean houses and other types of structures like commercial buildings and public tents. A structure is considered a place where someone lives. Residents don’t have to be in the structure at the time of the arson; a defendant can still be charged if the structure was used as a dwelling place.

What is the Punishment for Arson with an Inhabited Structure?

In California, arson of may be considered a felony punishable by three to eight years in state prison. The punishment for the crime may depend on whether the arson is categorized as “malicious” (highly intentional, with the intent to damage or burn the property). A person may be found guilty of malicious arson when they set fire to a structure or property with the intent to defraud, annoy, or injure another person, or with the intent to commit a wrongful act (such as stealing items while the building is on fire).

Penalties for malicious arson include:

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

Thus, you can see that malicious arson of an inhabited structure is one of the most serious types of arson crimes in California.

Penalties may be different if the court categorizes the arson differently. For instance, the court may determine that the arson was “reckless” rather than malicious. Reckless arson does not involve the highly intentional conduct as in malicious arson. The criminal penalties for “reckless” arson in California may include:

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

What are Aggravating Factors in a California Arson Case?

In the state of California, malicious and reckless arson cases can be punished more severely if certain aggravating factors are present. This is similar to how a simple assault can become a more serious assault case if aggravating factors are present. In an arson case, aggravating factors may include:

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

For malicious arson, any aggravating factors present can result in up to five additional years in prison. For reckless arson, an aggravating factor can result in up to three additional years in a county jail facility.

If the defendant set fire to a religious building, like a church or temple, or there are factors that clearly show the arson was due to targeted hate, then the defendant can also be charged with a hate crime. Hate crimes are covered by federal and state law, but state law depends on the state.

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

Many arson cases actually consist of people setting fire to their own homes. This is often done in an attempt to commit insurance fraud. For instance, a person may attempt to set their own home on fire and claim that it was caused by other factors. They may do this in attempts to collect money from the insurance for the damages. Here, arson penalties can be applied (as listed above) if the court finds that the elements are met for arson of an inhabited structure or other arson crimes.

Are there any Defenses to Arson of an Inhabited Structure?

Depending on the circumstances, there may be various defenses available to a person for an arson charge. For instance, it may be a defense if the defendant committed the arson out of duress, meaning that they were forced to commit the crime under threat of harm. An example of this is where a person is threatened by a person with a knife, who forces them to set fire to a building under threat of the knife.

Another defense can sometimes include the intoxication defense, wherein the person was intoxicated at the time of the arson. This can serve as a defense in some cases where the intoxication changed the person’s mind state and made them unable to control their actions in some way (for instance, if the person was blacked out during the time of the fire). The defense may be stronger if the person was intoxicated against their will or without their knowledge. Various other defenses may apply depending on the situation.

Should I Contact a Lawyer about My Arson Charge?

In the state of California, arson of an inhabited structure is a complex charge that can result in very different sentences and punishments depending on the case. It’s in your best interest to contact a local criminal lawyer if you’re facing an arson charge. Your attorney can provide you with advice for your case and can provide guidance during trial meetings.