Arson is defined as the willful and malicious burning or charring of property. There are many types of arson crimes, including setting fire to one's property with fraudulent intent--like when someone burns their house to collect insurance money. While the majority of arson crimes involve damage to buildings, arson can also be committed by a person who sets fire to forest land or a boat. Arson statutes typically classify arson as a felony due to the potential to cause injuries or death.
The Crime of Arson Defined
In its most basic sense a person commits arson when they knowingly, by means of a fire or explosive:
- Damage any real or personal property of another without their consent; or
- Damage any real or personal property with intent to defraud an insurer.
Degrees of Arson
Many states recognize differing degrees of arson, based on such factors as whether the building was occupied and whether insurance fraud was intended. Less serious arson cases may result in minor punishments, while other arson cases may result in the death penalty. Arson is handled in various courts throughout the U.S. in many different ways.
Many states classify arson crimes into different categories or degrees. More serious categories or degrees of arson will result in stricter punishments. Setting fire to an occupied building, for instance, can result in a more severe arson charge than setting fire to an abandoned barn in the countryside.
Arson is investigated by elite law enforcement units using the most advanced chemical analyses to locate the point of origin of a fire. Law enforcement can take months or years to fully investigate before a case is charged. Law enforcement looks at the motivation behind the crime of arson. Arson occurs in domestic violence cases, to hide another crime including murder and for financial gain.
Arson and Insurance Fraud
In many instances, people will engage in arson to commit insurance fraud and get quick money. Indeed, a person who sets fire to their own property can face arson charges. For example, assume Alice has a $1 million fire insurance policy on a falling apart building that would be worth half of that if she tried to sell it. If Bob burns the warehouse down and then tries to collect the proceeds of the insurance policy, Bob can be found guilty of both arson and insurance fraud.
Sample of State Arson Laws
All states have laws prohibiting arson. These laws focus on whether or not a structure was occupied at the time the fire was started to determine penalties. Some states list types of buildings that were burned specifying different punishments for the different types. A sample of these state laws are as follows:
The arson laws of North Carolina classify the burning of any dwelling or mobile home that is occupied at the time as a first degree felony and any dwelling that is unoccupied as a second degree felony. North Carolina criminal statutes sections 14-58 through 14-67.1 specify the burning of other specific structures such as schools, places of business, churches, boats, ginhouses, and tobacco houses, as felonies but with lesser punishments.
The laws against arson in Illinois specify that arson crimes exist only if the real or personal property has a value over $150. There are buildings such as schools or churches that do not have a minimum value for arson to be determined. Illinois makes a distinction between arson and aggravated arson. The difference is that for aggravated arson, the fire must have been intentionally set and;
- a person was inside the building; or
- a person was injured: or
- a policeman or fireman was injured.
In New York, state arson laws divide the crime into four categories for the purpose of assigning sentences. These four categories further divide into two classes. The two classes are whether or not the building was occupied at the time of the burning or not. Special consideration is given if an incendiary device (i.e. a malatov cocktail) was propelled into the building.
The state of California includes the burning of forest land in its arson statutes.
Arson and Federal Law
In addition to state statutes there are also federal laws. The basic federal arson statute prohibits the willful and malicious setting of fires within the maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States. This applies to any of the following:
- Structures or vessels;
- Machinery or building materials or supplies;
- Military or naval stores;
- Munitions of war; or
- Any structural aids or appliances for navigation or shipping.
Federal arson laws also cover the attempt to start the fire or entering into a conspiracy to do so.
Penalties and Sentences
The punishment for starting a fire greatly depends on the harm that was done. If the fire was set because of recklessness and not with deliberate intent and there was little damage and no person was injured some states will treat the arson as a misdemeanor . However, in most cases any setting of a fire will be treated as a felony. Prison terms vary from a possible two years for an arson of an unoccupied structure where the property damage was under a certain amount specified by state law to the potential for life imprisonment if there was death or serious bodily injury as a result of the fire.
Depending on your state, one defense to arson can be that you're simply burning your own property. As long as you don't damage someone else's property and don't cause any injuries, states like New York will accept your ownership of the property as a defense. Not all states make that distinction, so you should check your state's arson laws.
Get Legal Help with Your Arson Case
Defending yourself against a criminal charge can be nerve-racking. For a charge as serious as arson, the sentence can range from probation to 20 years or more in prison. No individual defendant can be expected to understand the full ramifications of every charge and every defense to a criminal case without a good criminal defense attorney. So if you're being investigated or charged with arson, or any other crime, you'd be wise to contact a skilled criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.