Arson Laws and Punishment

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.

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.

Today, 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.

Committing Arson

The information below outlines the elements of arson.

  • Intention. 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.
  • Recklessness. 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 committed arson.
  • 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 separate crime.
  • 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.


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.

  • Prison. 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.
  • Probation. 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

Being 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.

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