Arson is a criminal act of setting fire maliciously and willfully on personal or someone else’s property, forest land, or structure. In Orange County, arson is considered a property crime and treated as a felony because of the damage fire can cause. Penalties for arson range from fine to death sentence. An experienced arson defense attorney from Orange County Criminal Lawyer is always available to represent you when facing arson charges.
Elements of Arson Crime
Arson's definition includes the burning of personal property, land, and vehicles. Burning a building with the impression that it’s not inhabited while in reality, people live in it is a crime. The main elements that prove arson are:
- Burning evidence and verification that a criminal act caused the fire
- The accused intended to burn the building or other structure
- The burning act was malicious and not accidental
A structure refers to any building, tunnel, bridge, public or commercial tent, or power plant. Forest land refers to grasslands, woods, forest, cut-over land, or brush-covered land. The property, other than forest land, could be public or private. If you burn your property with no intention to defraud and nobody suffers injuries, you have not committed a crime.
Arson is a crime where no frustrated stage exists. The moment burning occurs, no matter the size of the portion burned, the offense is consummated. The crime has happened as acts for the execution of arson have already been performed.
Superior forensic officers investigate arson using various chemical and physical tests. An arson investigation is a unique field of forensic pieces of evidence to establish the charges. The process determines the possible cause of the fire and includes the identification of persons of interest.
Investigators use several methods of investigating the scene of the crime to look for evidence such as interrogation techniques, interviews, crime scene investigation, knowledge of fire science, evidence of accelerants used like gasoline, or any flammable material. They look for the starting point, source, and spread of the fire. Arson is difficult to prosecute in court because the investigator must rule out all accidental causes and prove that the fire was deliberately set with harmful intent.
An arson investigation is conducted to establish the fire source, and the responsible person is held accountable. Arson investigators are exceptionally trained professionals or retired firefighters with in-depth knowledge of different fuels, the impact of each energy on fire development, and how every fuel ignites and accelerates. According to statistics, arson cases that involve older people are done with a motivation for profit.
In arson, the property owner is the person possessing it, takes care of it, controls, and manages it. If you burn your property when you are living there, you are not guilty of arson. The exception to this is if you burn your property with the intention of prejudice or defrauding the property insurer. Burning your own house while it is lawfully in possession of a tenant is a criminal act.
An arsonist is someone who commits arson. Arsonists often use an accelerant to ignite, propel and direct fire. Detecting and identifying an ignitable liquid residue is vital in fire investigations. When an investigator cannot determine the fire's cause, it is regarded as suspicious, and arson investigations continue.
You can face arson charges even if you didn't commit the crime, but you helped, counseled, or caused another person to commit the criminal act. You are charged with abetting and aiding an arson. The prosecution must establish that you acted maliciously and willfully with unlawful intent to annoy, defraud, or injure another.
How Fire Investigation Works
Arson's evidence is almost impossible to preserve. The fire is likely to destroy the physical proof while the chemical foam or water used to put out fire may also eliminate any potential evidence. The firefighters that arrive on the scene first are essential witnesses to the arson investigator. The investigator inquires from the firefighters for such details as damaged sprinkler systems, the color of the smoke, flames strange behavior, and the condition of windows and doors.
After gathering the necessary information, the investigator looks for physical evidence and the fire's point of origin for documentation to either prove arson or disprove. The motive of setting the fire is a significant factor when examining arson. When establishing if someone committed arson, an investigator considers other factors such as thrill or attention-seeking, vandalism, revenge, crime concealment, politics, or mental illness.
Fire naturally burns upwards, forming a V-shaped pattern away from where it started. Investigators establish the original fire location through signs such as heat shadows, char patterns, and melt direction. These burn patterns lead to the source of the fire. Arsonists usually set many ignition points as proved by accelerants such as newspapers, fabric softener strips, waxed paper, rags, smokeless gunpowder, inflammable liquid, or twisted ropes.
Positive or direct evidence in arson investigation points to an issue such as that someone saw the accused setting fire, or it’s a homicide case, or there was an agreement and that someone was present and saw the fire set or saw the accused set fire, which caused death. Typically arson is classified as a felony but with higher risk to human life and property bear a stricter penalty.
The common arson crimes include setting fire to forests, agricultural land, public structure, inhabited property, or on your property with the fraudulent intention of collecting insurance money. Two types of property recognized in law are real property like land, structure and building, and personal property, including computers, cars, motorcycles, and cellphones.
Signs of Arson
- Absence of accidental causes
- Great damage
- High heat stress and unusual burn patterns
- Evidence of forced entry
- Valuable items missing
- Unidentifiable place of origin with a low burning point
- Multiple points of origin
- Smoke color
- Presence of accelerants
- Fire acting abnormally
- Property owner suspicious behavior
- Environmental modifications like propped windows and cloth trails
- Damaged sprinkler systems.
Registration as Arson Offender
The following persons must register as arson offenders:
- Persons convicted and imprisoned to at least 10 years
- Persons who attempted to start fires
- Persons manufacturing or found in possession of certain related materials and weapons.
Degrees of Arson
The degree of arson is defined according to the circumstances of the fire. It includes such factors as the number of damages resulting from the crime, whether at the time of the fire the building was occupied, or the fire was set to commit fraud. The degrees of arson include:
- First Degree Arson - Setting fire to a building or home where people usually are present such as a school.
- Second Degree Arson - Setting fire to an unoccupied or empty structure or building to claim insurance.
- Third Degree Arson - Setting fire to a space of abandoned building or area such as a field, woods, or forest.
Several conditions may enhance arson charges. These conditions form aggravated arson. You will need an arson defense attorney from Orange County Criminal Lawyer because you can't qualify for a probation grant if you are charged with aggravated conditions. An enhanced charge makes you face punishment together with the penalties laid on you.
Aggravated arson carries the most severe arson punishment, which is 10 years or life in state prison. If you had a former felony arson conviction, the current penalty could be enhanced by additional years imprisonment. Enhancement is further used in circumstances such as to a person charged with a time delay device or accelerant to start a fire, or the arson caused significant bodily injury to the first responder or the arson caused substantial physical harm to many people or destroyed multiple structures.
The judge can consider more aggravating conditions, and if they don't add to an extra penalty, the court may still consider them when sentencing you. You become ineligible for probation. Such aggravating conditions are arson on a worship place, arson in retaliation against the occupant or property owner.
If you are accused explicitly of arson with intent to injure others or cause destruction which may hurt others, and you had formerly been convicted of arson in the past ten years, or you caused damage which exceeds $6,500,000, or the fire you set destroyed more than five structures, it amounts to aggravated arson. If you are charged under any of these conditions, the penalty is state prison imprisonment for ten years to life and no grant of probation. For a different outcome of your case, you need an arson defense lawyer.
When classifying aggravated arson, immediate consideration is the intent of malice. Intent can result from anger, financial distress, and other emotional issues. Aggravated arson includes burning a building or home to obtain insurance settlement, or setting fire to cause fear or harm to another person. If the accused broke into the property or structure, these are now two crimes, burglary, and arson.
Sometimes it is difficult to prove the cause of the fire. Not all fires are classified as arson. Some fires start accidentally no matter how careful the person was. The accidental fire's proving cause doesn't have a deliberate act to ignite and spread the fire. However, some fires set deliberately can be unexpected, such as when an engineer lights off a boiler or deliberately lights a fire.
The reckless acts leading to property damage, forest, or other structure by fire may lead to criminal charges of unlawfully causing a fire. You might not have the intent to cause a fire, but you face arson charges for recklessly setting fire. It must be proved that you acted recklessly and took no unjustifiable or substantial risk knowing that your reckless act could burn property, forest, or structure. You, however, consciously dismissed the potential outcome of your action. You can be sentenced to prison and/or pay the cost of fire suppression.
In reckless arson, the prosecution aims to prove that you recklessly reacted to fire contrastingly from how a reasonable individual would react or think in a similar situation, for example, where a person lights a cigar at a gas station and knows the consequences of such an act very well. When you are accused of arson, the judge orders you to first undergo evaluation by a certified psychologist.
Arson and Insurance Fraud
People may set fire on their property, either commercial or residential, to receive insurance benefits. Insurance companies thus heavily rely on arson investigation reports, or they may employ their arson investigator. You face criminal charges if found guilty of collecting insurance money by setting a fire on the insured property. You are charged with both insurance fraud and arson.
Insurance companies annually lose billions of dollars to arson. Property owners may set fire purposely to collect insurance money. An investigator establishes the fire source and advises the insurance accordingly to ascertain if the policyholder warrants compensation. Only accidental fire on the insured property is compensated.
You could not be charged with arson by setting your property on fire unless you did so with an intent to injure someone or to defraud. Causing your property to burn with the unlawful purpose of collecting insurance policy, you risk not only being charged with arson, but you as well face charges under the fraud statute.
Penalties for Arson in Orange County
Every type of arson crime bears its consequences and penalties for a criminal conviction. When a fire destroys property, causes death or injury, the immediate assumption is arson. Reckless burning or arson varies depending on factors such as setting fire recklessly or willfully, whether the fire injures any person, and the type of property burned.
Burning personal property recklessly is a misdemeanor offense and is punishable for up to 6 months in county jail or/and up to $1,000 fine. The crime may become wobbler if the fire causes bodily injury or extends to forest land or another building. It can, therefore, be treated as a felony offense or a misdemeanor. Penal Code 451, the arson act, is always a felony offense. Arson Crimes and Punishments include:
- Penal Code Section 451(a) - Arson causing significant bodily injury is a felony punishable with imprisonment for up to 9 years. The prosecution must establish that you maliciously and willfully started a fire and burned structure, which significantly injured another person.
- Penal Code Section 451(b) - An inhabited structure arson is a felony punishable with imprisonment of up to 8 years. The prosecution must establish that you maliciously and willfully set the fire that burned an inhabited structure.
- Penal Code Section 451(c) - Arson of a forest or structure. It’s a felony crime punishable by imprisonment of up to 6 years. The prosecution establishes you maliciously and willfully started a fire and burned down an uninhabited structure or forest.
- Penal Code Section 451(d) - Arson of the property of another or your property. It’s a felony crime punishable by imprisonment of up to 3 years. The prosecution establishes that you maliciously and willfully set the fire that burned your property or another person’s property.
- Penal Code 452 - You are guilty of unlawfully causing a fire when you recklessly set fire and burn or cause forestland, property, or any structure to be burned. The prosecution must prove that you acted recklessly in setting a fire and burning forestland, property, or structure.
Both reckless burning and arson are charged as a felony and punishable by law. The prosecutor must establish that you set the fire that burned property, structure, or forest land and acted maliciously and willfully. Setting fire or burning means to destroy or damage by fire, either part of something or all of it.
It doesn't matter how small the part is, but you committed an act willfully or did it on purpose or willingly. That you acted maliciously when you intentionally did the wrongful act or acted with unlawful intent to injure or annoy someone else or defraud. If the prosecution proves that you destroyed your property for financial gain, you face an additional fine of $50,000 or double your anticipated or actual payment.
Acting willfully means acting with a purpose. Malice is acting with mischievous or wicked intentions or motives. A malicious act is a wrongful act and has no legal justification. In addition to malicious and willful acts, the prosecution must prove that fire was set to burn structure or property or forestland.
Additionally, if the prosecution proves the arson was malicious, you may face a felony conviction, and you could be required to register as a convicted arson offender. If you are charged with aggravated arson crime, you face additional 1-5 years imprisonment in the existence of any of the following factors:
- You had a previous arson conviction.
- More than one structures were burned
- Over one person sustained a significant bodily injury from the fire
- You used an incendiary device
- A firefighter or a protected person suffered significant injury providing emergency medical care in the fire.
Enhanced Penalties for Arson Conviction
Felony sentencing enhancements for arson's criminal act are imposed harsh prison sentences by the law if you have a prior violent felony conviction referred to as 'strike' offenses in the court record. If you have one previous 'strike' conviction and your current conviction is felony arson, you may face twice the prison sentence. If you have two or more previous 'strike’ convictions and you are currently convicted of felony arson, you may automatically face 25 years imprisonment to a life sentence.
Any form of arson is regarded as 'strikes.' It's to be used in the future to enhance any sentencing for arson charges that you might face. Other factors that lead to enhanced penalties on arson conviction are instances such as if you set fire and accidentally killed, you will be charged with the felony murder rule. You acted recklessly with indifference to human life.
Arson Defense in Orange County
Fires are naturally unpredictable and destructive if not adequately controlled. That's why reckless burning and arson crimes are punished severely in Orange County. However, it doesn't mean because you have been charged with the crime; you are guilty of arson. There are several defenses your lawyer may raise to shed doubt in your case to assist you to avoid conviction. The prosecution must establish your act beyond any reasonable doubt that you caused the fire to property, building, or forestland willfully and with malicious intent.
The prosecutors, judges, and law enforcement officials are tough on arson crimes, especially where a person is killed or injured from the fire or caused significant property damage. Your lawyer might raise questions that the prosecution cannot prove, and you are found not guilty of the criminal act. The arson charges can be reduced to reckless burning, less severe penalties imposed, or criminal charges dropped.
Sometimes the fire starts by mistake and unpredictably burns out of control. If this is so with you, you don't deserve charges of a crime you committed by mistake or didn't mean to commit. The following are common legal defenses that your arson defense lawyer can use against your arson charges:
- You were falsely accused.
- The fire was accidental
- The evidence against you shouldn't amount to an arson charge
- You are a victim of mistaken identity
- The fire didn’t result from arson.
How an Arson Defense lawyer can help you
Arson conviction has significant criminal consequences that may last for a lifetime. When faced by reckless burning or arson charges hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney can make a difference for your future. Your freedom needs protection from suffering as a result of a felony or misdemeanor arson conviction. Accidental arrest or misunderstanding as well requires immediate intervention. After serving time in state prison or county jail and/or paying hefty fines, you may be required to enroll as a convicted arson offender and you, therefore, update the local law enforcement agency regularly of your whereabouts.
Contact an Arson Defense Attorney Near Me
If found guilty of arson, the punishment is severe. The charges can be defeated or mitigated depending on the circumstances of the crime. A competent lawyer understands the arson elements and investigates whether the evidence from the prosecution is satisfying. At Orange County Criminal Lawyer, our arson defense attorneys focus on the insufficiency of evidence and loopholes in the prosecution’s investigation. Call us now on 714-262-4833 to fight your arson charges.