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What Is Arson?

Arson is the act of willfully and maliciously setting fire to any vehicle, building, structure or other property, whether commercial, residential, or open space.

Although many people think of arson as a property crime, it can result in bodily harm (or even death) of anyone caught within the flames or explosion resulting from the crime.

Arson According to U.S. Law

The FBI defines arson as the willful or malicious burning of property such as a house, building or personal property. However, this is not a strictly legally binding definition. The U.S. Code (Title 18, Section 844) states that arson is committed when the property is destroyed by means of a fire or explosive.

Additionally, state law is typically involved in most arson cases, particularly if the arson does not involve property being used for commercial purposes, such as a private residence. Although state law concerning the crime of arson varies, most jurisdictions consider arson to be a felony offense rather than a misdemeanor.

Further, state laws are generally broader in scope than the stricter definition offered up by the U.S., allowing for the destruction of private residences and property (including automobiles) by fire or explosion to qualify as arson. Legal protections may also extend to forested land, as in the state of California.

If You Start a Fire or Create an Explosion By Accident Is It Arson?

There is an element of intent attached to the crime of arson which also extends to simple recklessness in many jurisdictions. If the fire or explosion which damaged property or harmed someone was completely unintentional and not the result of reckless behavior, it provides one possible defense against arson charges.

The context in which the fire or explosion was created (including intoxication involving drugs or alcohol) is important in determining whether setting the fire was a crime or not.

What Is the Criminal Penalty or Punishment for Arson?

If you intentionally set fire or use an explosive device to damage property or harm people, you could face between five (minimum) to 20 (maximum) years in prison. This charge could become more serious if the fire resulted in personal injury to any victims. In this case, the penalty can increase to between seven years at a minimum to a maximum of 40 years imprisonment. Each state has the power to determine not only the terms of arson as a crime, but also the punishment to anyone found guilty of arson charges. In California, for example, offenders might face up to nine years in prison if the arson results in “great bodily injury,” and up to six years for malicious arson of “a structure or forest land.”

New York, however, separates arson into five categories by the degree of severity. Charges of fifth-degree arson, the least severe offense, constitute a Class A misdemeanor. Despite this, charges of fifth degree arson can lead to a year of incarceration as a maximum sentence. By contrast, if you are guilty of arson in the first degree involving a reckless and malicious fire or explosion that leads to knowing injury to a person, you could face a mandated prison sentence anywhere to 15 years to life.

Common Defenses Against Charges of Arson

Lack of intent or reckless behavior is a common defense used against arson charges.

Additionally, a fire or explosion due to natural causes in combination with an argument centered around lack of evidence provided by the prosecution may be upheld by the court under certain circumstances.

What Do Arson Attorneys Do?

An arson attorney knows the specifics of your state laws regarding arson, and can advise you on the best possible defense. This is why it’s crucial that you hire an experienced legal representative to defend you, who understands both the details of your case and the appropriate arson laws in your state.

Should I Hire an Arson Attorney?

The laws surrounding arson vary by state, and the legal definition of the degree of arson depends on several elements, such as the extent of the damage and whether or not the fire posed a threat to human life. Arson charges almost always constitute felony offenses. Felonies have higher stakes, so it is often a good decision to discuss these situations with an experienced attorney who is familiar with the complexities of arson laws in your state.

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