Under California PC 451, a person is guilty of arson when he or she willfully and maliciously sets fire to or burns or causes to be burned or who aids, counsels, or procures the burning of, any structure, forest land, or property.
Elements of the Crime
In order to be convicted of arson, the prosecution needs to prove 1. the defendant set fire to a structure, forest, property, and 2. the defendant acted maliciously and willfully.
In some instances, the prosecution might charge a suspect with an “aggravated” arson. Under PC 451.5, a suspect may be convicted of aggravated arson if the suspect acted:
- willfully, maliciously, deliberately, with premeditation, and
- with intent to cause injury to one or more persons or to cause damage to property under circumstances likely to produce injury to one or more persons or to cause damage to one or more structures or inhabited dwellings, sets fire to, burns, or causes to be burned, or aids, counsels, or procures the burning of any residence, structure, forest land, or property is guilty of aggravated arson.
- One of the following additional factors must also be present:
- defendant has been previously convicted of arson on one or more occasions within the past 10 years. OR
- fire caused property damage and other losses in excess of six million five hundred thousand dollars ($6,500,000)
The punishment under the statute varies based on a number of factors.
- A conviction of arson that causes great bodily injury is a felony punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for five, seven, or nine years.
- Arson that causes an inhabited structure or inhabited property to burn is a felony punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for three, five, or eight years.
- Arson of a structure or forest land is a felony punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for two, four, or six years.
- Arson of property is a felony punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for 16 months, two, or three years. For purposes of this paragraph, arson of property does not include one burning or causing to be burned his or her own personal property unless there is an intent to defraud or there is injury to another person or another person’s structure, forest land, or property.
- The defendant must have acted with specific intent, namely willfully and maliciously. If the defendant was not acting with the specific intent, then he/she cannot be convicted of the crime. Under the Penal Code, the word “willfully,” when applied to the intent with which an act is done or omitted, implies simply a purpose or willingness to commit the act. The words “malice” and “maliciously” import a wish to vex, annoy, or injure another person, or an intent to do a wrongful act, established either by proof or presumption of law.
- In some instances, if the defendant can show that the fire started accidentally, he/she may not be convicted of arson.
- As with any other crimes, constitutional defenses are always available to the defendant. The 4th amendment and Miranda Warning are two of the most common defenses that relate to the crime of arson.
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