It stands to reason that if you deliberately start a fire in California, you could be charged with arson. But, you may not realize that you can still be charged, even if the fire was not started deliberately. There are two separate crimes of arson in the state. Wilful and malicious setting of a fire is dealt with under Penal Code 451, and is commonly referred to as arson. Reckless arson, which is often referred to as reckless burning, is dealt with under Penal Code 452.
Both of these crimes can be charged as a felony, depending on the circumstances. Being charged with either of these crimes is serious, so you need to seek help from an experienced criminal lawyer, if it happens to you.
The crime of arson
The crime that is most often referred to arson is the deliberate and malicious setting of a fire. People set fires for many different reasons. For instance, someone might set fire to a neighbor’s outbuildings as an act of revenge. Or, a business owner might set fire to their business premises, so that they can make a claim on the insurance. This type of arson is charged as a felony.
The punishments for malicious arson vary, depending on factors such as what is set fire to, and whether anyone was injured as a result of the fire. Anyone who is convicted of malicious arson could face the following:
- Up to three years in state prison, if the fire involved personal property.
- Up to six years in state prison, if the fire involved any type of structure, or an area of land.
- Up to eight years in state prison if the structure or building which was set fire to was inhabited.
- Up to nine years in state prison if anyone received great bodily injury as a result of the fire being set.
It’s also possible for an arsonist to face a murder charge, if anyone dies as a result of the fire.
The crime of reckless burning
Reckless burning is defined as someone taking actions that cause a fire when they should reasonably have known that it was dangerous to do so. The most obvious example of this is someone throwing away a cigarette end in an area of forest land where there is a high chance of fire.
Setting fire to personal belongings recklessly is charged as a misdemeanour. But, the crime of reckless burning becomes a “wobbler” offense if a structure or forest land is involved, or if someone sustains serious injuries as a result of the fire.
The punishment for the misdemeanour crime is up to six months in county jail, and/or a fine of up to $1,000. If the crime is charged as a felony, the guilty party could face:
- Up to three years in state prison for setting fire to any structure, or to forest land.
- Up to four years in state prison, if a structure was inhabited when it was set fire to.
- Up to six years in state prison, if anyone was seriously injured as a result of the fire.
You can see that the punishments for both types of arson can be severe. If you are ever charged with either of these offenses, you should seek expert legal help immediately.