The crime of arson defined and explained, with real-world examples.

Arson crimes involve setting fire to property -- usually residential property or a commercial structure. Read on to learn more about the crime of arson, unique issues that arise in arson cases, and what a typical criminal statute on arson looks like. (For detailed information about other specific crimes, check out Nolo's Crimes In-Depth section.)

What Is Arson?

Arson is the intentional destruction or damaging of property by burning or setting it on fire. Most arson crimes involve damage to buildings. But arson can also be committed by a person who ignites a farmer's haystack or someone who sets fire to forest land that's public property. Arson statutes typically classify arson as a felony rather than a misdemeanor, because aside from the value of the property that is burned, fires always have the potential to cause injuries or death, and to spread to other properties that are close by.

Burning Your Own Property Can Be Arson

In some circumstances, a person who sets fire to their own property can still be said to have committed arson. For example, assume Bob has a $500,000 fire insurance policy on a dilapidated warehouse that would be worth half of that if Bob tried to sell it. If Bob burns the warehouse down and then tries to collect the proceeds of the insurance policy, Bob is guilty of both arson and insurance fraud.

Deaths Caused by Arson Crimes

Arson is an inherently dangerous act. Under a legal principle known as the "felony murder rule," most states' criminal statutes 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 intended.

For example, assume that Meg sets fire to grassland in a national park, seeking to protest government land use policies that she disagrees with. The fire spreads far more 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, Meg is guilty of murder because the man's death was the result of the inherently dangerous felony (arson) that she committed.

Reckless Arson

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, let's say a group of campers hikes into a wilderness area on a hot summer day. Warnings stating "Open fires are prohibited" are posted at the entrances to the wilderness area. Nevertheless, deciding that roasted marshmallows would be a tasty before-bed snack, the campers start a small fire. A wind comes up and carries burning embers to nearby dry grasses. The grasses ignite, and the fire spreads out of control. The campers may 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.

Arson or Accident?

Even if an intentionally set fire destroys another person's property, the person who set the fire is not an arsonist if the destruction 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 knocks over 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 is not guilty of arson. He did not intend to destroy 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 then depend on the work of a forensic arson expert. 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 State Law Example

To better understand how the crime of arson is defined, and what kind of sentence might be handed down for an arson conviction, take a look at this excerpt from the California Penal Code (Section 451) on arson.

A person is guilty of arson when he or she willfully and maliciously sets fire to or burns or causes to be burned or who aids, counsels, or procures the burning of, any structure, forest land, or property.

(a) Arson that causes great bodily injury is a felony punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for five, seven, or nine years.

(b) Arson that causes an inhabited structure or inhabited property to burn is a felony punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for three, five, or eight years.

(c) Arson of a structure or forest land is a felony punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for two, four, or six years.

(d) Arson of property is a felony punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for 16 months, two, or three years. For purposes of this paragraph, arson of property does not include one burning or causing to be burned his or her own personal property unless there is an intent to defraud or there is injury to another person or another person's structure, forest land, or property.

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