If you’re facing charges for arson, it’s important to start putting your defense together as soon as possible. Depending on the circumstances of your case, you could be facing strict penalties. Any mistakes early on in your defense process could hurt your cause, so you need to start out strong.
So what exactly are you being accused of when you’re charged with arson? Arson, in general, is intentionally burning or setting fire to property. Most cases of arson involve buildings, but the charge can also apply to vehicles, or land without structures on it. There are four elements of arson the court will usually need to prove in order to secure an arson conviction:
- Maliciousness. Typically, there must be a malicious intent behind the act, whether it was for criminal purposes or for fraud, like trying to collect insurance money. It means you started the fire on purpose and knew that it was likely to cause harm.
- Burning. The act of starting a fire or creating conditions for a fire is a key element of arson.
- Dwelling. Traditionally, arson involved the burning of a “dwelling,” but under modern law this element is also applied to other property besides a residence. Essentially, it means that the malicious burning that took place happened to some type of property.
- Ownership. The burned property usually needs to belong someone, whether it’s another person, a company, or even the arsonist.
The prosecution in your case will be trying to prove that you intentionally burned someone’s property, knowing that it would cause damage.
Not all arson cases are on the same level. In most jurisdictions there are three degrees of arson, though some may have four. Which one you may be charged with will depend on the severity of your case.
Arson in the first degree is the most serious arson charge. You may be charged with first-degree arson if you set fire to occupied property. So, setting fire to a building that had people in it at the time could lead to a first-degree arson charge. First-degree arson is a felony. The exact punishment will vary from state to state, but because of the threat to human life involved in first-degree arson, you could face a sentence of up to 20 years to life in prison. You could also get a steep, five-figure fine and could owe damages in a civil court.
Arson in the second degree will usually apply when a building or home is set on fire without any occupants inside at the time. Second-degree arson is also a felony, though a less severe one than in first-degree cases. Typical penalties for second-degree arson include prison sentences ranging from a few years to a couple of decades, or hefty fines for thousands of dollars.
Arson in the third degree is usually a felony, though the exact class of felony can change depending on which state you’re in and the extent of the damage. Most states consider it a third-degree offense when the fire was set in abandoned or otherwise empty property. Penalties for third-degree arson can include prison sentences of a couple of years and sometimes up to 15 years, or fines for a few thousand dollars. Civil court cases, however, could require you to pay much more.
Because the laws around arson vary from state to state, you’ll need to understand your state’s laws when you build your defense. It will usually be in your best interest to work with a criminal defense attorney with experience in arson cases to understand what the laws are and how you can best defend yourself against them.
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