Arson is defined as the willful and malicious burning or charring of property. While the majority of arson crimes involve damage to buildings, a person could also set fire to forest land or a boat. Arson often occurs in conjunction with insurance fraud, domestic violence, or to conceal evidence of another crime.
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 example arson cases.
The Crime of Arson Defined
A person commits arson when they knowingly, by means of a fire or explosive:
- Intentionally damages any real or personal property of another without their consent; or
- Intentionally damages 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).
Degrees of Arson - Ranges of Punishment
Arson is generally charged as a felony because of the potential to cause serious bodily injury or death. Some states have differing degrees of arson, depending on whether it was an occupied building or whether arson involved insurance fraud. Some states have lesser included offenses in their statutes, such as criminal mischief or reckless destruction of property.
The punishment for starting a fire depends on the harm that was done. If the financial cost of the property loss is minimal and people weren't endangered, punishment may be minimal. On the other hand, arson that causes death may result in punishment up to and including the death penalty.
Arson and Insurance Fraud
In some cases, people may be tempted to use arson to commit insurance fraud and get a quick payout. Even a person who sets fire to their own property can face arson charges. For example, Brenda has a $1 million insurance policy on a dilapidated building. If Brenda secretly sets fire to the building and 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 whether or not a structure was occupied at the time the fire was started to determine penalties. Some states list types of buildings that were burned specifying different punishments for the different types. A sample of these state laws are as follows:
North Carolina: The arson laws of North Carolina classify the burning of an occupied dwelling or mobile home as a first-degree felony. If it is unoccupied, as a second-degree felony. North Carolina criminal statutes assign punishments based upon the type of building. Sections 14-58 through 14-67.1 specifically list schools, places of business, churches, boats, and "ginhouses."
Illinois: The Illinois arson laws specify that arson crimes exist only if the property has a value over $150. There are buildings, such as schools or churches, that do not have a minimum value for arson to be determined.
Illinois makes a distinction between arson and aggravated arson. For someone to be charged with aggravated arson, the fire must have been intentionally set and:
- a person was inside the building, or
- a person was injured, or
- a policeman or fireman was injured
New York: In New York, state arson laws divide the crime into five different felony categories. Each could carry a lengthy jail sentence. Key distinctions between the charges are whether the building was occupied at the time and whether an incendiary device was used (such as a Molotov cocktail).
California: The state of California includes the burning of forest land in its arson statutes.
Federal Arson Law
In addition to state statutes, there are also federal arson laws that 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 someone's life was jeopardized in the fire. Federal arson laws also punish the attempt to commit arson or entering into a conspiracy to do so.
Defenses to Arson Charges
Charges of arson are difficult to defend. Arson is typically investigated by elite law enforcement units using advanced chemical analyses to determine the cause of the fire. Arson specialists can take months or even years to fully investigate a case before charges are brought. They consult with fire marshals or other public safety officials. Other officers interview friends and family of suspects looking for possible motives behind the crime.
Prosecution requires proof of intent to support an arson conviction but many accused arsonists try to argue that the fire was started accidentally. Evidence of accelerants, or other deliberate acts, can be used to establish intent.
In some states, a defense to arson could be that the burned property is owned by the defendant. As long as nobody is hurt and the fire doesn't spread to another property, states like New York will accept ownership of the property as a defense.
This defense doesn't apply if the arsonist, or an accomplice, tries to collect insurance proceeds after the fire. Also, if anyone was injured or endangered, even unintentionally, the ownership defense will not be allowed.
Example Arson Cases
Firefighter Sentenced to 5 Years
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 was sentenced to five years in prison.
Arson During a Riot
A Galesburg, Illinois man was sentenced to almost nine (9) years in prison for arson committed in Minneapolis in May 2020. While thousands gathered for peaceful protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, 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, 14 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 of Deadly Fires
In a case that was delayed more than a year due to COVID-19 concerns, Akron, Ohio resident Stanley Ford was finally convicted in 2012 for the arson deaths of nine (9) neighbors in 2016 and 2017. A Court TV story provides extensive coverage of the testimony and evidence in the case against Ford, who suffers from vascular dementia and brain damage. He was sentenced to nine consecutive life sentences in prison.
Get Legal Help with Your Arson Case. Call a Defense Attorney.
For a charge as serious as arson, the sentence can range from probation to 20 years
or more in prison. If you are being investigated for or charged with arson,
contact a criminal defense attorney in your area.