Intentionally and maliciously setting a fire — otherwise known as arson — is an incredibly serious offense in the state of California. Arson offenses carry harsh penalties which may include lengthy prison sentences and steep fines.

In California, arson falls into two categories:

  1. malicious arson
  2. reckless burning.

Although reckless burning is generally a less serious offense than malicious arson, neither offense should be taken lightly. If you or someone you know has been charged with malicious arson, reckless burning, or a related crime it is imperative that you contact a criminal defense attorney who can represent you.

California Arson and Reckless Burning Laws

Under California’s arson laws it is illegal to set fire to any building, property, or forest land. Whether the fire is set willfully and maliciously or recklessly determines which of of the two California arson laws you will be charges under:

  1. Arson – Penal Code 451 PC, or
  2. Reckless Burning – Penal Code 452 PC

Arson – Penal Code 451 PC

Penal Code 451 PC, also known as the “malicious arson” law, is defined by BOTH of the following elements:

  1. The defendant burned or set fire to a structure, property, or forest
  2. The defendant did so willingly and maliciously

For the purpose of gaining a better understanding of these two elements of malicious arson, let us more clearly define their terminology:

  • The defendant burned or set fire to a structure, property, or forestland

According to California law, you Burn or set fire to something by damaging or destroying it with fire. This includes even minor or partial damage of an object. A structure is a broad term that includes things such as bridges, tents, and any type of building.

Property refers to refers to automobiles, furniture, clothing, or any other type of personal property, OR land other than forest land. It is NOT illegal to burn your own personal property UNLESS another person or their property is injured by the fire or you burn the property with the intention of committing fraud (such as insurance fraud).

Forestland is any forest, wooded area, grassland, or brush-covered land.

  • The defendant did so willingly and maliciously

To act willfully is to do so willingly or on purpose. To act maliciously is to intentionally commit a wrongful act, or to do something with the intention of causing harm such as injury.

Below is an example of a violation of Penal Code 451 PC, “malicious arson”:

Sandra, after discovering that her boyfriend had been cheating on her, set fire to his car in an act of revenge. Because Sandra purposefully set fire to someone else’s vehicle with the intention of causing harm to the vehicle, she is guilty of violating Penal Code 451 PC.

Reckless Burning – Penal Code 452 PC

In order to be guilty of violating Penal Code 451 PC you must have had the intent to cause a fire. If you cause a fire unintentionally, you may instead be charged with Penal Code 452 PC, “reckless burning”. Penal Code 452 PC is defined by two elements:

  1. The defendant burned or set fire to a structure, property, or forest land, and
  2. The defendant did so recklessly.

It is important to note that “reckless,” in this context, means that you are knowingly doing something that presents a substantial risk of causing a fire, and that doing so is a gross deviation from how a reasonable person would act in that situation. Reckless does not mean careless or negligent. A fire that is started by accident is not the same as a fire that was caused by recklessness. For example, starting a fire by forgetting to turn off the stove before leaving the house may be deemed accidental, whereas starting a fire by throwing a cigarette into a ditch filled with dry brush may be deemed reckless.

California Arson Penalties and Sentencing

The penalties you might incur for a California arson conviction vary depending on a number of factors, including:

  • Whether you are charged with malicious arson under Penal Code 451 PC or reckless burning under Penal Code 452 PC
  • Whether someone suffered an injury as a result of the perpetration of arson
  • The nature of the property that was burned
  • (In some cases) results of a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation of the defendant

Willful or Malicious Arson

In California, willful or malicious arson is always a felony offense punishable by incarceration in the California state prison. Prison terms, based on the circumstances of the crime, are:

  • Malicious arson of personal property: 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years
  • Malicious arson of a structure or forest land: 2, 4, or 6 years
  • Arson that results in bodily injury: 5, 7, or 9 years
  • Malicious arson resulting in the burning of an inhabited structure or property: 3, 5, or 8 years

Additional penalties include:

  • A fine of up to $10,000 for all forms of malicious or willful arson
  • Possible additional fines of up to $50,000
  • Possible additional fines if convicted of setting the fire for financial gain
  • A strike on your criminal record under California’s Three Strikes Law

Reckless Burning

Under Penal Code 452 PC, reckless burning is a misdemeanor offense unless the property that is burned is a structure or forestland, or causes great bodily injury, in which case it is a “wobbler” offense, which can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.

Penalties for misdemeanor reckless burning include:

  • Up to 6 months in county jail
  • A fine of up to $1,000

Potential penalties for other forms of “wobbler” reckless burning include:

  • Up to 6 months or 1 year in county jail for a misdemeanor sentence
  • Up to 2, 3, 4, or 6 years in the California state prison for a felony sentence

Aggravated Arson

You may face additional penalties if convicted of “aggravated” arson. You can be charged with aggravated arson under the following circumstances:

  • You have a prior felony arson conviction under Penal Code 451 PC or Penal Code 452 PC
  • You use a device to accelerate the fire or delay the ignition of the fire
  • More than one person is injured as a result of the fire
  • More than one structure burns as a result of the fire
  • Injury is incurred by emergency personnel such as a firefighter or police officer

Additional aggravating factors that may lead to harsher or additional penalties include:

  • Setting fire to a church or other “place of worship”
  • Setting fire in retaliation against a landlord or person who you believed to be the owner of the structure
  • You had a prior arson conviction within the past 10 years

Convicted Arson Offender Registration

Individuals who have been convicted of malicious arson, attempted malicious arson, or aggravated arson resulting in 10 or more years in prison must register as convicted arson offenders and must keep local law enforcement updated in regards to their whereabouts. If you are required to register as an arson offender, your defense attorney may be able to help you obtain a certificate of rehabilitation, after which you will no longer be required to register.

Below are some of the most common legal defenses used in arson and reckless burning cases:

Fire was started by accident or not caused by arson

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In order to be convicted of arson or reckless burning, the prosecutor must be able to prove that the fire was started willfully, maliciously, or recklessly. You cannot be charged with arson for starting a fire by accident. This defense is not valid if you created a risk of fire because you were intoxicated or under the influence of drugs, in which case you can still be convicted of violating Penal Code 452 PC, reckless burning.

Additionally, your attorney may be able to challenge the forensic evidence brought forth in the case if there is a possibility that it may be inaccurate or collected by means of outdated investigative practices, such as making assumptions based on certain kinds of burn patterns.

False accusation or mistaken identity

There are a number of reasons why you might be mistakenly identified or wrongfully arrested under an arson charge. Perhaps a witness mistakenly identified you as the perpetrator (a common cause of false arson charges in California), maybe items belonging to you were found at the scene of the fire, or another person started the fire and accused you in order to escape their own charges. Whatever the reason, if you have been falsely accused or mistakenly identified as the perpetrator of arson, your defense attorney may be able to convince the judge and/or jury of your innocence.

Insufficient evidence

In arson cases, it is not uncommon for there to be few of no witnesses or for evidence to be destroyed in the fire. Although circumstantial evidence is valid in California criminal trials, it is often difficult for the prosecutor to make a case based on circumstantial evidence alone. In order to secure a conviction or arson or reckless burning, the prosecutor must be able to prove you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and if the evidence is insufficient for them to do so, you cannot be liable.

In California, arson and reckless burning are serious crimes that come with serious penalties. If you have been charged with arson or a related offense, it is crucial that you contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer to fight on your behalf. As a California criminal defense attorney with over 30 years of experience, I am confident that I can build the best legal defense for you based on the details of your case. Don’t hesitate, contact my office today and let me get to work defending you.