• JC Serrano

Committing Arson in California: The Most Common Penalties

Updated: Jun 5

Find An California Criminal Defense Attorney for Arson Charges


Arson was once defined as willfully setting fire to another person's house, home, or surrounding land. Its goal was to prevent individuals from being trapped inside their burning homes while they were still alive. The traditional definition of arson has been enlarged to cover the destruction of any type of property under modern arson legislation. Arson can be committed by burning personal property, houses, or land, and it is not necessary for the property to be a dwelling, building, structure, or a place with people inside. Every state has arson laws, although there are a few differences in how they punish or define the crime.


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The intention of the Accused.


Will you be prosecuted with arson if you try to burn someone else's property without their permission? This basically implies that if you accidentally set fire to something, you will not be prosecuted with arson. You must set fire to the property intentionally or arrange for it to be burned or destroyed as a result of your activities. A prosecution, on the other hand, is not obliged to show what you intended to do when you set the fire or burned the house down. Even if you never say why you set fire to the house, the prosecution can convict you of arson if the circumstances demonstrate you intended to burn it down.


Recklessness or Negligence.


If you cause property damage as a result of irresponsible action, you may be prosecuted with arson in some states. Acting irresponsibly is doing something even if you know it's dangerous and could cause a fire or property damage. In some states, negligently inflicting property damage can be tried separately from arson.


Direct or Not.


You don't have to intentionally set fire to someone's home to be convicted of arson. You can also be prosecuted with arson if you commit acts that result in the unintentional burning of property. Arson is defined as the intentional lighting of a fire with a match. If you drop a lit match in a dry spot on your property and cause a wildfire that destroys another person's home, you have also committed arson.


Fire or explosion.


Fires are also covered under arson laws in some jurisdictions. This means that even if the damage is caused by debris rather than fire, you will be prosecuted with arson if you inflict harm with an explosive device. In some countries, property damage caused by flames is prosecuted as a separate offense.


There has been a loss of property.


To convict you of arson, the prosecutor must show that your actions caused damage to someone else's property. If there was no harm as a result of the behavior, it was not arson. On the other hand, the damage can be modest, and the fire does not have to burn for a specific amount of time.


You are the owner of the property.


You can be prosecuted with arson if you set fire to your own property, despite the fact that most arson cases involve the destruction of someone else's property. However, you must either set the fire for dishonest reasons or cause damages to someone else's property to be convicted of arson by setting fire to your own residence. Setting fire to your home or business to collect on your insurance coverage is an example of arson. Similarly, arson may be charged if you set fire to your property with the goal of inflicting injury to someone else's property.


The Penal Code, Section 451, states:

  • Arson is committed by anybody who deliberately and intentionally sets fire to destroy or cause the burning of any building, forest land, or property, or who assists, counsels, or procures the burning of any structure, forest land, or property.

  • Arson that causes serious bodily harm is punishable by a state jail sentence of five, seven, or nine years.

  • Arson that results in the burning of an occupied house or occupied property is penalized by three, five, or eight years in state prison.

  • Arson of a building or forest property is punishable by a state prison sentence of two, four, or six years.

  • Arson of property is punishable by a state prison sentence of 16 months, two years, or three years. Unless there is an explicit intent to defraud or an injury to another person or another person's structure, forest land, or property, arson of property does not include someone who burns or causes the burning of his or her own personal property.

The Penal Code section 452 states:

  • A person is guilty of unlawfully starting a fire if he recklessly sets fire to, burns, or causes to be burned any building, forest land, or property.

  • Starting a fire that causes grave bodily harm without permission is a criminal punishable by two, four, or six years in state prison, or one year in county jail, or a fine, or all of the above.

  • Starting a fire without permission that causes an occupied building or inhabited property to burn is a crime punishable by two, three, or four years in state prison, one year in county jail, a fine, or both.

  • Starting a fire in a building or on forest property without permission is a crime punishable by 16 months, two years, or three years in state prison, or six months in county jail, or both.

  • Setting fire to someone's property without their permission is illegal. Unless there is damage to another person or to another person's structure, forest area, or property, burning or causing to be burned one's own personal property does not constitute unlawfully causing a fire of property for the purposes of this paragraph.


The Various Types of Arson


One can be charged with arson even if he or she did not actually perform the act but advised, assisted, or induced someone else to do so. The following applies not just to the arson but also to anyone suspected of aiding and abetting an arsonist.



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The prosecutor must establish that the defendant acted deliberately and deliberately and that these standards were met in order to charge him with this offense. That signifies the act was done freely or on purpose, and it was done with the aim to conduct wrongful conduct or to defraud, offend, or hurt another person. If someone, for example, accidentally sets a fire, it is not considered arson because the act was not done on intent. If an accidentally created fire was created by reckless conduct, an individual could be prosecuted for unlawfully starting a fire under Penal Code section 452.


Arson cannot be charged unless the property was torched with the purpose to defraud or if another person was wounded as a result of the arson. For instance, if someone burns down to his or her private property in order to obtain an insurance scheme, he or she could be charged with both arson and fraud.


Simple Arson


If the arson was of a building or forest land, simple arson is a felony punishable by varying amount of years in state prison and 16 months, two, or three years in state prison if the arson was of any other property. In Penal Code section 450, "structure" means "any house, commercial or public tent," "forest land" means "any brush-covered land, cut-over land, forest, grasslands, or forests," and "property" means "any real or personal property that is not a structure or forest land." Under this rule, a house would be regarded as a "building," but an automobile would be deemed "property."


Arson in a Lived-In Building


If the arson results in the damage of a habitable house, the responsibility is increased. This felony conviction carries a state prison penalty of three, five, or eight years. The term "inhabited" refers to a structure that is occupied by someone. The individual or individuals who live in the structure do not have to be present at the scene of the arson to meet this condition. I will help you fight this charge as a California Criminal Defense Lawyer.


Serious Bodily Injury Resulting from Arson


Arson that results in permanent bodily harm to another person is a serious crime that carries a sentence of five, seven, or nine years in state prison. A significant or severe bodily harm is one that is more significant than mild or moderate. The distinction between a significant or significant injury and a minor injury is blurry, and the judge or jury must determine which is which.


Aggravated Arson


A variety of measures under Penal Code § 451.1(a) can be used to increase arson accusations (1-5). These circumstances are referred to as "aggravated arson," and anyone convicted of any of these aggravated circumstances will not be eligible for probation. When a charge is aggravated, the convict faces additional punishment in addition to the fines for the crime. A person charged with arson which has previously been convicted of a felony arson offense faces a sentence of three, four, or five years in prison. The same increase may be used if the arson resulted in serious bodily injury to a first responder or if the arson resulted in severe bodily injury to more than one person or damaged multiple buildings. The same enhancement will be given to anyone accused of utilizing an accelerant or a time delay mechanism to start the fire.


In addition, the judge may examine other aggravating circumstances, which, while not imposing a new sentence, may be considered by the court in sentencing and render a criminal ineligible for probation if convicted under certain circumstances. These conditions include arson in retaliation against the owner or occupant of a structure or land or arson on a center of worship.


It is also "aggravated arson" when the defendant is accused of intentionally starting a fire with the intent to harm others or cause damage that is likely to injure others, especially if the defendant has been convicted of arson in the previous ten years or the fire caused damage to five or more occupied buildings. In all of these cases, the punishment is a ten-year or life sentence in state prison with no chance of parole. An LA-based Criminal Defense Lawyer may be able to assist you in getting a better outcome in your case.


Unlawfully Causing a Fire (Section 452) of the Penal Code


If a person acts recklessly but does not intend to cause a house, forest, or other property to burn, he or she might still be punished with unlawfully setting a fire under Penal Code section 452. Even if the person had no intention of starting a fire, this might be a serious accusation.


To be labeled "reckless," it must be demonstrated that the person took a major and unjustifiable risk, knowing that his or her activities could cause a structure, forest, or other personal property to burn, but decided to ignore the consequences of his or her acts. The risky act must be objectively risky, which means that a sensible person would regard it to be outside the bounds of prudent behavior in identical circumstances. Voluntary intoxication does not excuse unsafe behavior.


Setting fire to property without the intent to do so but because of reckless conduct has a range of penalties, from a minor felony punishable by a county jail sentence, fine, and/or probation to a serious crime punishable by a lengthy prison sentence, fine, and/or probation. If the fire just caused property damage, it is a misdemeanor. On the other hand, careless conduct that results in the burning of an occupied dwelling or property is known as a "wobbler" and is prosecuted as a felony or misdemeanor. If convicted as a misdemeanor, the maximum sentence is two, three, or four years in state prison or a fine. If convicted as a felony, the maximum sentence is one year in county jail or a fee. When a person causes grave bodily harm to someone by starting a fire illegally, it is generally referred to as a "wobbler," which carries a sentence of two, four, or six years in state prison, as well as a year in county jail and/or a fine.


What Are the Consequences of Arson?


In most cases, the intensity of the arson would result in greater penalties and fines. Furthermore, the severity of the penalties and fines would be determined by the amount of property destroyed, as well as whether or not the arson resulted in any injuries or deaths. The following are some of the probable consequences of arson, depending on the severity of the arson and the laws of the state where the arson occurred:


Felony charges have been filed against you. Felony convictions often result in a term of more than one year in prison, which must be served in a federal facility rather than a state or county jail. Felonies can result in fines and punishments, as well as restitution to the victim.


Misdemeanor charges have been filed against you. If the arson was not regarded as extremely dangerous or reckless, and there was minimal damage, a misdemeanor penalty would be preferable to a felony one. A misdemeanor infraction can result in a county jail sentence as well as criminal fines.


A Lawsuit in Civil Court. The fire survivor may be entitled to sue the arsonist in civil court. For the victim's harm and medical cost, the arsonist may be obliged to pay punitive damages.


Other Consequences: Arson could be punished separately under state law if it was conducted in connection with other offenses. The arsonist could face murder charges if someone was murdered as a direct result of the fire. Another probable arson outcome is probation.


Arson is punishable by a variety of penalties:


Arson is a state-sanctioned felony with various levels of severity. In some conditions and jurisdictions, arson can only be charged as a misdemeanor, yet felony charges are likely. Property damage or fires ignited in residences, dwelling places, or structures with persons inside are felony violations, which are more serious than misdemeanor charges.