Traditionally, arson was a crime that prohibited burning someone else's home, dwelling, or nearby property. Its purpose was to protect people. Today, modern arson laws have expanded the traditional definition and cover burning any type of property—personal property, buildings, or land. Arson laws exist in all states, though some differences exist between how state laws define, punish, or categorize the crime. Federal law also criminalizes arson.
This article will review the common definitions, penalties, and defenses to arson charges.
Although definitions vary slightly from state to state, the crime of arson involves someone causing a fire or explosion with the purpose of destroying real or personal property. The penalties for arson often depend on the type of property, the value of the property, the defendant's intent, and whether the property was occupied. States typically impose the harshest penalties for offenses involving bodily harm or risk of harm to human life.
To secure an arson conviction, the prosecutor must generally prove the defendant's actions were intentional, purposeful, or reckless. In some states, the prosecutor must also show the fire resulted in harm to property or person.
To commit arson, the person must purposefully set fire to the property or intend that their actions will lead to the property becoming burned or damaged. Accidentally setting fire to something isn't considered arson unless the person's acts were reckless.
Proving intent. While intent is an element, a prosecutor doesn't need to show exactly what the defendant was thinking when they started the fire or burned the property. Short of an unlikely confession, the prosecutor can use circumstantial evidence to show the person's intent. Say, a couple broke up and the next day a fire started in their shared home, conveniently destroying only the cheating individual's clothing and personal items. The prosecutor would likely argue that the timing between the breakup and the fire, along with the damage only to specific property, highly suggests the jilted partner intentionally burned the other's property out of revenge.
Reckless. In some states, a person can commit arson by destroying property as a result of acting recklessly. Acting recklessly means a person knows their actions are dangerous and could result in fire or property damage, but they do it anyway. A state might consider this offense a lesser degree of arson or a separate offense (such as reckless burning).
Fire or explosion. In many states, explosions are also included in arson laws and damage resulting from the force or debris (not necessarily from fire) could lead to a conviction. In other states, property damage caused by explosions is charged as a separate crime.
To be convicted of arson, the prosecution must typically show that a person's actions led to someone else's property becoming damaged. However, the damage can be very slight, and there is no requirement that the fire lasts any specific amount of time. Some states don't require proof of damages and setting a fire with intent to damage property will be enough to support a conviction.
While most arson crimes involve property that belongs to other people, setting fire to own's own property can also be charged as arson. To be convicted of arson, the person must have set the fire for fraudulent purposes or the fire led to someone else's property getting damaged. For example, burning down one's home or business with the intent to collect on an insurance policy is arson (and insurance fraud). Or, if someone intentionally set fire to their shed and the fire spread to the neighbor's yard and then house, the person could be convicted of arson.
Common defenses to arson charges start with "It wasn't me. I didn't set the fire." A defendant might also try to poke holes in the prosecution's case by negating certain elements of the crime. For instance, the defendant might argue the fire started by accident or the owner of the property consented to the fire (such as a prescribed burn). In some instances, the defense strategy may be to seek lesser charges by showing that the building was not occupied or wasn't intentionally set (here, the defense might argue for reduced charges for recklessly burning property or criminal mischief).
Most states divide arson offenses into different degrees of severity—many of which are felony-level offenses. Often, the penalties will depend on the type of property, the defendant's intent, the extent of damage, and whether bodily harm resulted. On top of possible jail or prison time, judges often order defendants to pay fines and restitution in arson cases. Restitution payments compensate the property owner for damages caused by the crime. Such orders may also include repaying a fire department for the expense of battling the fire.
Real property. Arson involving a home, dwelling, or occupied building typically carries harsh felony penalties. A conviction for any of these offenses can mean a prison sentence of possibly 20 years or more, as these acts represent the greatest risk of harm to human life. Damage to certain property, such as state forest land, a government building, or a religious entity, could also result in severe felony penalties. If the arson involved an unoccupied building or land, lower felony penalties may apply.
Personal property. Damage caused to personal property (such as a car or clothing) may result in misdemeanor or felony penalties. The offense level typically depends on the monetary value of the damage. Some states also provide harsher penalties for setting fire to a vehicle, especially if the vehicle is near an occupied building.
Convictions for intentional arson can result in felony sentences of anywhere from one to 20 years or more. Many states impose harsh penalties when a defendant uses an accelerant in the offense or targets a property based on the owner's beliefs, race, ethnicity, or other protected status.
A defendant whose reckless acts resulted in harm or property damage may face felony or misdemeanor charges based on just how reckless the acts were or the end result. For instance, recklessly setting fire to property that could cause harm to numerous people, such as in a school building or apartment complex, would likely result in felony charges. Reckless acts that don't pose a risk to human life may carry misdemeanor penalties of up to a year in jail.
A state may also classify certain arson offenses by the extent of the damage. For instance, damage to property worth less than $500 might result in misdemeanor charges, whereas damage to property upwards of $100,000 or more could mean 10 years or more in prison. In cases of wildfire arson, some states impose increasing penalties based on the number of buildings or homes destroyed or damaged in the fire.
Arson that results in bodily harm to another will often result in a felony conviction. The severity of the penalties typically corresponds to the extent of the victim's injuries or the number of victims. A state might also impose felony penalties if a first responder (like a firefighter) suffers injuries when responding to the arson.
Being charged with arson is a very serious situation. Anyone facing arson charges should speak to a local criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Your 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.