What is Arson?
Traditionally, arson was a crime that prohibited burning someone
else's home, dwelling, or nearby property. Its purpose was to protect
people from having their property burned while they were still inside.
modern arson laws have expanded the traditional definition and now
cover burning any type of property. They do not require that the
property be a home, building, structure, or a place with people inside,
and you can commit arson by burning either personal property, buildings
or land. Arson laws exist in all states, though some differences exist
between how state laws punish or categorize the crime.
The information below outlines the elements of arson.
You can only commit arson if you intend to burn someone else's property
without their permission. This essentially means you cannot commit
arson if you accidentally set fire to something. You must purposefully
set fire to the property or intend that your actions lead to property
becoming burned or damaged. However, a prosecutor does not necessarily
have to show what you specifically intended to do when you started the
fire or burned the property. You can be convicted of arson if the
prosecutor can show that the circumstances show you intended to burn the
property even if you never say what your intention was.
In some states, you can also commit arson if you damage property as a
result of acting recklessly. Acting recklessly means you act knowing
that what you are doing is dangerous and could result in fire or
property damage, but you do it anyway. In other states, causing property
damage by acting recklessly is charged as different crime than arson.
- Direct or indirect.
It's not necessary to directly set fire to property to be convicted of
arson. You can also be convicted of arson if you take actions that
indirectly lead to property getting burned. For example, if you use a
match to set fire to a home, you have committed arson. On the other
hand, if you drop a lit match in a dry area on your property and cause a
wildfire which then damages someone else's home, you have also
- Fire or explosion. In
many states, explosions are also included in arson laws. This means
that if you use an explosive force to cause damage you can also be
convicted of arson even if that damage is from debris and not from fire.
In other states, property damage caused by explosions is charged as a
- Property damage.
To be convicted of arson the prosecution must show that your actions
lead to someone else's property becoming damaged. If no damage resulted
from your actions no arson occurred. However, the damage can be very
slight, and there is no requirement that the fire last any specific
amount of time.
- Property you own.
While most arson crimes involve property that belongs to other people,
you can also be charged with arson if you set fire to your own property.
However, to be convicted of arson by burning your own property you must
either set the fire for fraudulent purposes, or the fire must lead to
someone else's property getting damaged. For example, burning down your
home or business with the intent to collect on your insurance policy is
arson. Similarly, if you intentionally set fire to your property and
that fire then leads to someone else's property getting damaged, you may
also be convicted of arson.
is a crime that states have divided into different degrees of severity.
In some situations and in some states, arson may only amount to a
misdemeanor offense, though felony charges are also possible. Felony
offenses are more serious than misdemeanor offenses, and typically
involve significant damage to property or fires set in homes, dwelling
places, or buildings with people inside of them.
Arson charges can lead to lengthy prison sentences, especially where
there is significant damage or someone's life or well-being was
threatened. In the most egregious felony cases where someone starts a
fire with the intent to harm or kill someone else, an arson conviction
can bring a life sentence. In other situations, convictions for felony
arson can bring sentences of anywhere from one to 20 years. Misdemeanor
arson convictions can lead to as much as a year in county jail.
- Fines. Anyone
convicted of arson also faces fines in addition to jail or prison time.
Fines for arson convictions can range significantly from a few thousand
dollars to $50,000 or more.
- Restitution. Because
arson necessarily involve damage to someone else's property, arson
convictions usually come with a restitution order in addition to a fine
or prison sentence. Restitution is an amount of money that the convicted
person must pay to the property owner to compensate for the damage
caused by the arson. Restitution amount differs depending on how much
damage was involved, and they may also include repaying a fire
departments for the expense of battling the fire.
Arson convictions can also result in probation sentences. Probation
typically lasts at least 12 months, but in many arson cases it can last
significantly longer, sometimes up to as long as five years. When a
judge sentences you to probation you must comply with specific terms,
such as regularly reporting to a probation officer, not leaving the
state without permission, and not committing other crimes. If you
violate any of the terms you can have your probation revoked and be
forced to serve the original prison sentence.
Talk to an Attorney
charged with arson is a very serious situation. If you're convicted of
an arson crime you can face years in prison and substantial fines, not
to mention having a criminal record that will follow you for the rest of
your life. Anyone charged with arson should speak to a local criminal
defense attorney as soon as possible. Arson laws differ significantly
between states, and a local attorney will not only know what the law is
in your state, but will also be familiar with the local court systems,
prosecutors, and judges. A criminal defense attorney will be able to
guide you through the criminal justice process, advise you about
possible plea agreements, and protect your rights at every stage of the
criminal justice process.