Arson is a serious crime. Fire is unpredictable and can cause extensive damage and death. It can also risk the lives of the firefighters who extinguish the flames.
This article looks at types of arson crimes, federal and state arson laws, and the penalties a person could face if convicted. It also presents several examples of arson cases.
The Crime of Arson Defined
Arson is legally defined as the willful and malicious burning or charring of property. This means an individual set fire to a structure or object and wanted to cause property damage.
While most arson crimes involve damage to buildings, a person could also set fire to forest land or a boat. Arson can occur in conjunction with insurance fraud, domestic violence, or to conceal evidence of another crime.
As common law defines arson, a person commits arson when they knowingly use a fire or explosive device to:
- Intentionally damage any real or personal property of another without their consent
- Intentionally damage any real or personal property, even their own, with intent to defraud an insurer or in a way that recklessly endangers a person or another person's property
Defining arson can vary by state law. All states consider arson a felony, while a few states also have misdemeanor arson laws.
Degrees of Arson and Punishment
Arson is a felony because of the potential to cause serious bodily injury or death. Some states have different degrees of arson, depending on the intent behind the arson. Arson of an occupied building is charged differently than arson involving insurance fraud. Some states have lesser included offenses in their statutes. These may include criminal mischief or reckless destruction of property.
Very few states have misdemeanor arson laws. Generally, arson is a felony. Felonies range in seriousness, with fourth-degree or class E felonies being the least severe. The most serious is first-degree arson, a class A felony. It will carry the harshest punishment and prison sentence.
The punishment for starting a fire depends on the harm done, as well as the intent of the fire. Was the fire set with malicious intent? Was it accidental or reckless? Punishment may be less if the financial cost of the property loss is minimal and people aren't endangered. But arson that causes death may result in punishment, including prison time or even the death penalty.
Often the amount of damage caused can determine the severity of the charge. Generally, charges of arson are as follows:
- First-degree arson is an intentional fire that risked human life, meaning a person was inside the building or structure at the time of the fire. Generally, this is setting fire to a building used as a home or residence.
- Second-degree arson involves burning an unoccupied or empty structure, such as an abandoned building, a barn, or a motor vehicle.
- Third-degree arson definitions vary by state. It may be defined as burning a space, like a parking lot or field. Alternatively, it is arson to commit insurance fraud.
- Fourth-degree arson is the reckless starting of a fire that then causes property damage.
- Fifth-degree arson is only charged in a few states, such as New York. It is a misdemeanor criminal charge. It usually involves the burning of personal property. Even a misdemeanor arson charge can carry a minimum sentence of jail time and fines.
- “Aggravated" is a serious charge enhancement that will increase your penalties. Aggravated arson is when a fire is set intentionally and involves injuries or death. It is a first or second-degree arson charge enhancement.
Arson and Insurance Fraud
Sometimes, using arson to commit insurance fraud and get a quick payout is tempting. Even someone who sets fire to their own property can face arson charges. For example, Brenda has a $1 million insurance policy on a dilapidated building. Brenda secretly sets fire to the building. She then tries to collect the insurance money. Brenda could face criminal charges for arson and insurance fraud.
Sample of State Arson Laws
All states have laws prohibiting arson. These laws tend to focus on the occupation of the structure when the fire starts to determine penalties. Some states specify the type of building, specifying different punishments for each. A few samples of these state laws are as follows:
North Carolina: North Carolina arson laws classify the burning of an occupied dwelling or mobile home as a first-degree felony. An unoccupied structure is a second-degree crime. North Carolina criminal statutes assign punishments based on the type of building. Sections 14-58 through 14-67.1 list schools, places of business, churches, boats, and "ginhouses."
Illinois: Illinois arson laws specify that arson crimes exist only if the property has a value over $150. Some buildings, such as schools or churches, do not have a minimum value for arson.
Illinois makes a distinction between arson and aggravated arson. For an aggravated arson charge, the fire must have been intentionally set and there must be at least one of the following:
- A person was inside the building
- There was great bodily injury to a person
- There was injury to a policeman or fireman acting in the line of duty
New York: In New York, state arson laws divide the crime into five different categories, with four felony charges and one misdemeanor. Each could carry a lengthy jail sentence. A key distinction between the charges is the occupation of the building at the time of the fire. They also consider the use of an incendiary device (such as a Molotov cocktail).
New Jersey: New Jersey arson law provides that a conviction of aggravated arson is subject to the New Jersey Statutes Annotated (N.J.S.A.) No Early Release Act (NERT). NERT requires the completion of at least 85% of the offender's custodial sentence before being eligible for parole.
California: California's criminal law includes the burning of forest land in its arson statutes. It can carry a punishment of up to 6 years in prison.
Federal Arson Law
Federal arson laws prohibit the willful and malicious setting of fires within the maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States. The federal statute applies to:
- Structures or vessels
- Machinery or building materials or supplies
- Military or naval stores
- Munitions of war
- Any structural aids or appliances for navigation or shipping
Federal criminal penalties are severe. If convicted, an arsonist could face 25 years in prison or life in prison if the life of any person is placed in jeopardy during the fire. Federal arson laws also punish the attempt to commit arson or to enter into a conspiracy to commit arson.
Defenses to Arson Charges
Charges of arson are challenging to defend. Elite law enforcement units investigate arson. They use advanced chemical analyses to determine the cause of the fire. Arson specialists can take months or even years to investigate cases before bringing charges. They may consult with fire marshals or other public safety officials. They may interview friends and family of suspects, looking for possible motives behind the crime.
Prosecution requires proof of intent to support an arson conviction. Many accused arsonists try to argue that the fire began accidentally. Evidence of accelerants, or other deliberate acts, establishes intent.
In some states, a defense to arson could be that the defendant owns the burned property. If no one suffers an injury and the fire doesn't spread to another property, states like New York will accept property ownership as a defense.
This defense doesn't apply if the arsonist or accomplice tries to collect insurance proceeds after the fire. Also, the ownership defense isn't allowed in cases where someone is injured or lives were endangered, even unintentionally.
Other states may consider age, intoxication, mental health, and diminished capacity as defenses to arson.
Example Arson Cases
The following are examples of arson cases:
The Firefighter as Arsonist
A Placerville, California firefighter pled guilty to one count of arson for a wildfire that burned 80 acres in 2007. Although he admitted to setting dozens of wildfires in El Dorado and Amador counties, a plea deal resulted in him serving time for only one fire. Benjamin Cunha said he set the fires to earn overtime pay and to impress his firefighter peers. He received a sentence of five years in prison.
Arson During a Riot
A Galesburg, Illinois man will spend almost nine years in prison for arson committed in Minneapolis in May 2020. Thousands gathered for peaceful protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of police. Yet Matthew Rupert drove 400 miles from his home to riot, according to his Facebook posts. A Facebook Live video showed him asking for lighter fluid before entering a Sprint store that was set on fire.
Ultimately, at least 21 people faced federal charges for arson or aiding and abetting arson. Dozens of fires were set in Minneapolis and St. Paul over three days.
Neighbor Convicted in Deadly Fires
Akron, Ohio resident Stanley Ford was finally convicted in 2022 for the arson deaths of nine neighbors in 2016 and 2017. The case faced delays of more than a year due to COVID-19 concerns. A Court TV story provides extensive coverage of the testimony and evidence in the case against Ford. Ford has vascular dementia and brain damage. He will serve nine consecutive life sentences in prison.
Get Legal Help With Your Arson Case: Call a Criminal Defense Lawyer
The sentence can range from probation to 20 years or more in prison for a charge as serious as arson. Only an attorney can give you legal advice and help to ensure the best possible outcome for your criminal charge. Contact a criminal defense attorney in your area if you are being investigated for or charged with arson.