CALIFORNIA ARSON LAWS
California Penal Code (PC) sections
451, 451.1, 451.5 and 452, 452.1, and 453-457.1
A person may be guilty of the crime of arson under any of the California Penal Code sections listed above. However, the primary sections are PC §451, 451.5 and 452. If a person willfully and maliciously, (under Penal Code section 451) or recklessly, (under Penal Code section 452) set fire to, or burn, any building, forests or any real or personal property they may be guilty of felony or misdemeanor arson. If they willfully, deliberately, maliciously and with premeditation set fire to, or burn, any building, forests or any real or personal property with intent to cause injury or damage to inhabited dwellings, or do cause injury or damage to inhabited dwelling, or injury to one or more persons they may be guilty of aggravated arson.
For purposes of the arson law, you set fire to, or burn something when you damage or destroy it with fire. You do not need to damage or destroy the entire object, damaging even a very small part of it counts to be charged with arson. Arson laws typically do not apply to setting fire to your own personal property (which means non-real estate) unless one sets his own personal property ablaze for a fraudulent purpose such as to collect insurance or the fire causes injury to another person or to another person's home, property or land.
As shown above, there are three main arson laws in California:
• The first California arson statute is California Penal Code section 451, which prohibits one from "willfully or maliciously" setting fire to a building, land, or other property.
• The second California arson law is California Penal Code section 452 , which describes a crime technically referred to as "unlawfully causing a fire", more commonly referred to as "reckless burning" or "reckless arson". This code section prohibits "recklessly" setting fire to a building, land, or other property.
• The third California arson law is California Penal Code section 451.5, which prohibits aggravated arson which generally can be described as acting willfully, deliberately, maliciously and with premeditated intent, to cause injury or damage to inhabited dwellings.
As you see, the primary difference in the three sections is the state of mind of the offending actor. Penal Code §451, requires the offender to act with an willful and, or malicious state of mind; Penal Code §452, requires the offender to act recklessly, i.e., where he knew or should have known that his conduct would cause an unlawful fire; and Penal Code §451 requires the offender to act with a willful, malicious and deliberate state of mind and with premeditated intent.
Felony or Misdemeanor Arson
Depending on the seriousness of the harm or potential harm caused by the fire or burn to life or property, one may be charged with either Felony or Misdemeanor Arson. For example, if a person starts a fire or burn to personal property (not a building or forest land) and no one suffers a great bodily injury as a result he or she will probably be charged with the crime of misdemeanor, reckless arson / reckless burning.
Penalties: Sentencing and penalties for California arson charges, (i.e. whether charged as a misdemeanor, felony or aggravated arson), vary a great deal, depending on a variety of factors including, but not limited to:
• The nature of the property burned,
• Whether any people were injured as a result of the fire,
• Your criminal record, and
• Whether you are convicted of willful/malicious or reckless arson (i.e., Penal Code section 451 or section 452)
Reckless arson under Penal Code 452 can be charged as a misdemeanor, a felony, or as aggravated arson. Malicious arson under Penal Code 451 is always a felony.
If you are convicted of any arson offense, the judge may order you to submit to a psychiatric or psychological evaluation in order to help him/her decide on the length of your jail or prison sentence.
Penalties for Misdemeanor Arson: Misdemeanor arson penalties may consist of summary (informal) probation along with a fine or restitution; or up to one (1) year in a county jail.
Penalties for Felony Arson: Penalties for a Felony are more severe. These may consist of formal probation, along with a fine or restitution, and, or may also include sixteen (16) months to nine (9) years in the California State Prison; or sixteen (16) months to three (3) years in the state prison if convicted of attempted arson. In addition, you may get a possible strike on your criminal record under California's Three Strikes Law. This "strike' penalty only applies if you are convicted of malicious arson under Penal Code section 451.
In California, aggravated arson is charged when a person willfully, deliberately, maliciously and with premeditation, sets fire to or burns personal property, a structure or inhabited dwelling with intent to cause injury or damage or who in fact causes injury or damage.
Penalties for Aggravated Arson: California law also provides for enhanced penalties for so-called "aggravated" arson cases. If one is convicted of, or pleads guilty to, aggravated arson, they face an additional and consecutive sentence of one (1) to five (5) years in California state prison if any one of the following factors is present:
• You have a prior felony conviction for malicious or reckless arson,
• A first responder or more than one person suffers serious injury,
• More than one structure burns' or
• You use a device to accelerate the fire or to delay ignition.
There are further aggravating factors that can increase your penalty up to a life sentence and, or where probation will not be allowed.
As stated, if you are convicted of any arson offense, the judge may order you to submit to a psychiatric or psychological evaluation in order to help him/her decide on the length of your jail or prison sentence.
Possible Defenses for All Classes of Arson:
As stated, your defense depends on your specific circumstances. Herein we list general defenses for arson which, as the facts allow, include but are not limited to:
• Demonstrating the fire was an accident,
• Proving the fire was the result of some cause other than by your actions, or
• Showing that you were falsely identified
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