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Under the California Penal Code statutes that concern arson, a charge of arson against a person is initially decided on what that person’s intent was. The charge of arson as a felony is based on whether he or she, willfully or maliciously, set a fire that burned a structure, property such as a house, car, or boat, or burned a forest. This will decide if the arson is a felony or misdemeanor.

In some situations, it may be a case of “reckless burning,” such as dropping a cigarette and not putting it out properly, according to California’s Penal Code 452. Burning cigarette embers, in a dry environment, such as on a carpet or outdoors in a dry wooded area, catch fire and cause damages. If someone dies in a house, or a firefighter dies while trying to put out that fire in a wooded area, then the charge will change to the “felony-murder rule” under Penal Code 451.

An upgraded charge of aggravated arson can be applied to the above circumstances if that same person also has an earlier conviction of arson within 10 years to the current date of charge, or if the damages and losses from a fire exceed $6.5 million.

If someone dies in a house, or a firefighter dies while trying to put out that fire in a wooded area, then the charge will change to the “felony-murder rule”

Let us look at the current layout of different charges of arson, whether it is a felony or not, and the typical penalty applied if a charged person is convicted.

Type of Arson* Charge/Conviction Penalty
Attempted Arson Non-felony 3 years/prison
Arson of Property Felony 3 years/prison
Arson on Structures/Forest Land Felony 6 years/prison
Arson on Inhabited Structures/Properties Felony ≤ 8 years/prison
Arson Causing Bodily Injury Felony ≤ 9 years/prison
Aggravated Arson Felony ≤ life in prison
Conviction may also carry fines up to $50,000. (*Findlaw, California Arson Laws)


Legal Defense Options

There are several options for a legal defense to arson. There must be some type of evidence that the person under arrest is the person who caused the fire. A witness may come forward and give evidence that the person seen at the scene of the arson, is the person under arrest. There can also be CCTV footage that clearly shows a person setting a fire. Yet, if the footage is unclear, then the evidence is insufficient.

Other defenses against the charge of arson are:

  • The fire was a result of an accident,
  • The fire was not caused intentionally, using any chemicals or materials typically showed as tools of an arsonist,
  • The fire was in that person’s home but is not shown to be a situation of insurance fraud,
  • The suspected arsonist is underage,
  • The suspected arsonist has a solid alibi for the time when the arson was committed,
  • A suspected arsonist is insane, or unable mentally to decide right from wrong,
  • Or a fire was started as a matter of self-defense.

If you are in the San Diego area and need help with a defense against a charge of arson, please feel free to call us at: 619-234-2300. We can help!

Author Photo

Kerry L. Armstrong

Attorney Kerry Armstrong opened up his law firm, the Law Offices of Kerry L. Armstrong, APLC, in June 2007. In 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 Mr. Armstrong was selected for inclusion in the California Super Lawyers list, an honor only awarded to 5% of the nation’s attorneys. In 2017, he was also selected for the Super Lawyers Top 50 in San Diego list. In 2014, he was selected as a Top Attorney by Los Angeles Magazine. Additionally, Mr. Armstrong was also named as a Top Attorney by the San Diego Business Journal in 2014.

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