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 states define the offense somewhat differently, 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.
Intent. An essential element of the crime of arson is intent. In general, to commit arson, someone starting a fire must mean to start it with the knowledge that property damage is likely to result. On the other hand, accidentally burning property often isn’t a crime. In some states, though, a person who recklessly starts a fire that causes property damage or hurts someone can be convicted of arson. 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.
Means of starting the fire. Typically, the method used to start the fire is irrelevant. An arsonist can use a match, a lighter, or even explosives to directly set property on fire. But 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.
Burning you own property. In many states, burning property that you own in order to collect on an insurance policy constitutes arson. 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. (Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 5/20-1 (2017).)
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 such factors 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. Ann. tit. 21, § 1401 (2017).)
If there are victims, the person who started the fire could face additional criminal charges, including 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 Ann. § § 76-3-204, 76-3-301, 76-6-102 (2017).)
Arson statutes can be complicated and vary significantly from state to state. For more information on arson crimes, or to find out about procedures and potential penalties in your area, consult an experienced criminal defense attorney.