Arson is a crime that involves someone intentionally burning and damaging property. Legislatures consider it a serious crime because of the devastation fires can cause.
While the definition of arson can vary from state to state, arson is generally the intentional and malicious act of burning or setting fire to another person's property.
Some might think arson has to involve the burning of a house or some kind of building. In most states, though, it doesn't: Setting fire to personal property (for example, cars, boats, or machinery) will qualify.
Someone can also commit arson by setting fire to land. In many states, deliberately starting a forest fire or burning a farmer's crops can result in an arson conviction.
The usual "elements" of arson include the act of starting a fire, the intent to start the fire, and damage to property caused by the fire.
Starting the fire. Obviously, someone has to set fire to property to be guilty of arson. The method used to start the fire is irrelevant, so long as the fire was intentionally or recklessly set (see "Intent" below). An arsonist can use a match, a lighter, or even explosives to directly set fire to the property. And someone who indirectly sets a fire can also be convicted of arson. Suppose, for instance, a man starts a fire in one building while intending for it to spread and damage a neighboring building. The man can be convicted of arson for burning the second building even though he didn't directly ignite it.
Intent. To commit arson, someone starting a fire usually must intend to start it. In some states, deliberately setting the fire is enough to show intent, but in other states, the person must also intend to damage property or know that the damage will likely result. And in some states, even when the fire isn't intentional, it can still result in an arson conviction if the person recklessly started it. An example of recklessly starting a fire would be throwing fireworks (like cherry bombs) into a dry, grassy field. Disobeying local fire ordinances, such as those restricting bonfires or campfires, can also lead to arson charges if the fire spreads and causes damage.
Property damage. For an arson conviction, the fire must result in some kind of damage. The damage usually doesn't have to be severe, though. In most states, even minor property damage can result in an arson conviction.
In many states, burning your own property can be arson under certain circumstances. Under Illinois law, for example, a person who burns insured personal property worth $150 or more, with the intent to deceive the insurance company, has committed felony arson. (720 Ill. Comp. Stat. § 5/20-1 (2022).)
Arson laws and penalties vary by jurisdiction. In some states, arson can be either a misdemeanor or a felony, while in others it's always a felony. Many states divide arson into degrees of severity, depending on factors such as:
Typically, arson statutes provide stiffer penalties if a structure is occupied at the time of the fire or if the fire otherwise has the potential to harm people. For example, in Oklahoma, deliberately burning a residence or any occupied building can result in up to 35 years in prison and a fine of as much as $25,000. (Okla. Stat. § 1401 (2022).)
And if people are seriously injured or killed in the fire, the arsonist could face additional criminal charges, like mayhem, manslaughter, or murder.
In some states, arson that leaves only minimal property damage can result in a misdemeanor conviction. Under Utah law, for instance, arson causing property damage of $1,500 or less is a misdemeanor. A misdemeanor arson conviction in that state can lead to a maximum of one year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. (Utah Code §§ 76-3-204, 76-3-301, 76-6-102 (2022).)
Whether defenses apply to arson charges depends on the circumstances and the arson laws of the state where the fire happened. Below are some defenses that might come into play, depending on the facts of the case.
A common defense to arson is that the fire was an accident, meaning the "intent" element described above isn't there. Perhaps the fire started with an unattended candle or a greasy pan on the stovetop, for example.
But the accident defense won't work if the defendant's actions were reckless. For instance, if the defendant was burning leaves right next to a neighbor's house on the windiest day of the year, an argument that the house fire was an accident probably wouldn't succeed.
Also, it can be hard to win with the defense of accident because prosecutors usually call experts in arson cases. Arson experts apply scientific techniques to determine whether accelerant (such as lighter fluid) was used and whether other factors, such as the pattern of the fire, show the fire was intentional.
When people are so drunk or high that they don't intend the consequences of a fire they cause, they might be able to use intoxication as a defense. The defense only applies in states that have "specific intent" arson statutes, meaning the defendant has to intend not only to start the fire, but also to damage property. For example, in a state with a specific intent statute, if someone started a small fire inside to keep warm but was so drunk that she didn't realize it could cause the building to burn, the defense of intoxication might apply.
If you've been charged with arson or any other crimes, talk to a criminal defense lawyer right away. It's important to have an attorney with significant criminal defense experience.
A local, experienced lawyer will know the prosecutors and judges in the court your case is in, and can advise you how the case will move through the system. The lawyer should also be able to determine if any defenses apply and give advice on whether a plea bargain or a trial is the best option.