Arson crimes involve intentionally burning and damaging property, but in some cases it’s not that simple. Read on to learn more about some specific situations that can lead to arson charges.
Statutes generally define arson as the intentional and malicious act of burning someone else’s property. Arson crimes can involve setting fire to buildings, personal property, or even land. For example, someone can commit arson by igniting a farmer's haystack or burning public forest land.
Setting fire to property typically isn’t enough for an arson conviction, though. The fire must result in at least some property damage, even if it doesn’t completely destroy the property. Under most states’ laws, even minor property damage can lead to an arson conviction.
In some states, arson can be either a misdemeanor or a felony; in other states, the offense is always a felony. Laws typically provide harsher sentences for those convicted of deliberately starting a fire in an occupied building or in other situations where the fire can potentially harm people.
For more on the elements of the crime of arson and some potential punishments, see our article on arson charges and penalties.
While burning your own property often isn’t a crime, in some circumstances setting fire to property that you own can result in an arson conviction. In most states, setting fire to your own property with the goal of collecting on an insurance policy is arson. For example, assume Bob has a $500,000 fire insurance policy on a dilapidated warehouse that would be worth half of that if he tried to sell it. If Bob intentionally burns the warehouse down and then tries to collect the proceeds of the insurance policy, he can be guilty of both arson and insurance fraud.
Arson is an inherently dangerous act, as fires have the potential to cause injury or even death. Under a legal principle known as the "felony murder rule," many states' criminal laws say that an arsonist who starts a fire that causes a person's death can be found guilty of murder, even if the death was not intentional.
For example, assume that Meg sets fire to grassland in a national park, seeking to protest government land use policies. The fire spreads further than Meg anticipated and kills a homeless man who was sleeping several hundred yards away from where Meg started the fire. Though Meg was unaware of the man's presence and she certainly had no intention of killing him, she can be found guilty of murder because the man's death was the result of the inherently dangerous felony (arson) that she committed.
Although arson charges are typically based on fires that are set intentionally, reckless behavior that leads to the destruction of property by fire can also constitute arson.
For example, suppose a group of campers hikes into a state park on a hot summer day. Signs prohibiting open fires are posted at the entrances to the park. Nevertheless, the campers decide that roasted marshmallows would be a tasty before-bed snack, and they start a small fire. Wind carries burning embers to nearby dry grasses, which ignite, and the fire spreads out of control. The campers can be convicted of arson. Though they had no intention of destroying property, they behaved recklessly by starting a prohibited open fire on vulnerable dry land.
Even if an intentionally set fire results in property damage or destruction, the person who starts the fire may not be guilty of arson if the damage was accidental. Let's look at an example. Assume that, making breakfast for his family, Fred cooks bacon in a frying pan on a gas stove. Fred overheats the frying pan, and hot grease splatters him. In a panic, Fred overturns the frying pan, and hot grease comes into contact with the open flame. The burning grease quickly sets the nearby curtains alight, and the kitchen is ablaze before Fred can react. Fred and his family escape unharmed, but their house and that of the next door neighbor are badly damaged by smoke and fire. Fred has not committed arson, because he did not intend to destroy his own or his neighbor’s property, nor did he act recklessly.
When a fire occurs, it isn't always possible to make a quick and easy determination of whether the fire was caused by an accident or by arson. If fire and police officials are uncertain about a fire's origin, they may regard it as a "suspicious fire" and open an investigation. Whether arson charges result—and whether those charges can be proven in court—may depend on the work of a forensic arson expert. Such experts rely on scientific principles to find the cause of a fire and determine whether a crime has been committed. Unfortunately, forensic arson experts are no more infallible than other types of scientific experts, and some arson convictions are eventually overturned because expert forensic testimony turns out to be incorrect.
Arson laws are complicated and potential penalties vary significantly between states. For more information on arson crimes or any of the issues that might arise in an arson case, consult an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area.