California Arson Laws – Penal Code Section 451

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Arson is a serious crime in California that involves more than intentionally setting fire or burning property. How does California define arson? What are the key terms and elements? What penalties could you face if charged under Penal Code section 451?

Today, the lawyers at the Law Offices of Kerry L. Armstrong, APLC, will provide an overview of what you need to know about arson in the Golden State. If you have any questions about California’s arson laws, please contact our attorneys today.

How Does California Define Arson Under Penal Code Section 451?

California Penal Code section 451 states that a person commits arson when they willfully and maliciously set fire to, burn, or cause to be burned, or who aid, counsel, or procure the burning of, any structure, forest land, or property.

Arson also includes setting fire to or burning your personal property to defraud or injure another person or their property. Arson charges apply to both starting a fire yourself and helping someone else do it.

It should be noted that a person cannot be charged with arson in California for burning his or her personal property unless there is an intent to defraud or injure another person or another person’s structure, forest land, or property.

What Are the Key Terms of Arson in California?

The essential terms of Penal Code section 451 are as follows:

Willful and Malicious

The prosecution must prove that you acted willfully and maliciously to convict you of arson. This means you intentionally set fire to the property with a wrongful or unlawful motive. It does not matter whether the fire was set for revenge, profit, or vandalism—if the motive was illegal, it qualifies.


Burning means causing fire to damage property, even if the damage is minimal. For example, if you char a piece of wood with a lighter, that counts as burning. The fire does not have to spread or consume the whole property.

Structures, Forest Land, or Property

Arson can apply to a variety of properties, including buildings, homes, vehicles, forests, and even personal belongings. 

A structure is any enclosed area designed for human occupancy, such as a house, tent, bridge, or power plant. Forest land is any land covered with trees, bushes, grasses, or woods. Property can be any personal property or land other than forest land—including vehicles, boats, furniture, crops, and fences.

Aiding or Procuring

You can also be charged with arson if you help someone else commit the crime, even if you are not present at the scene. Giving aid to an arson includes planning, encouraging, or facilitating the act of setting fire to the property. 

What Is the Punishment for Arson in California?

The severity of the fire and its consequences determine whether arson is classified as a misdemeanor or a felony. Let’s look at the primary forms of arson, along with possible punishments.

Arson Causing Great Bodily Injury

Arson causing great bodily injury occurs when someone intentionally sets fire to a structure, forest land, or property, causing significant physical harm to another person. It carries a maximum sentence of nine years in state prison.

Arson of an Inhabited Structure or Property

Arson of an inhabited structure or property is the act of setting fire to any building or property being used as a residence, whether it is occupied or not at the time of the blaze. These could be tents, hotels, apartments, or homes. There is an eight-year maximum sentence for this felony in state prison.

Arson of a Structure or Forest Land

Arson of a structure or forest land is the act of setting fire to any uninhabited building or land, including barns, sheds, bridges, and parks. It carries a maximum sentence of six years in state prison.

Arson of Property

Arson of property involves setting fire to any personal property belonging to someone else. Property includes cars, furniture, or clothes. This felony is punishable by up to three years in prison. However, it can be reduced to a misdemeanor if the fire was set with reckless disregard for the safety of others and caused only minor damage.

Other Penalties

Besides incarceration, other consequences can result from an arson conviction in California, including:

  • Fines up to $10,000. The court may impose a fine on top of the prison sentence for any type of arson.
  • Restitution. The court may order you to pay restitution to the victims and the fire department for any losses or expenses caused by the fire. This could include medical bills, property repairs, counseling, or firefighting fees.
  • Arson registration. You may be required to register as an arson offender for life with the local police department. This means providing your personal information, address, fingerprints, and photographs and updating them regularly.

Convictions for arson causing great bodily injury or arson of an inhabited structure or property can trigger a strike under California’s three-strikes law, leading to harsher penalties for future felony convictions.

What Are Some Legal Defenses Against Arson?

If you or a loved one are accused of arson in California, consult an experienced criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. There may be legal defenses that can help you fight the charges or reduce the penalties. Some of the common defenses for arson are:

  • Lack of intent. You did not intend to set fire to the property or land. 
  • Lack of evidence. There is not enough evidence to prove that you were the one who set the fire or that the fire was caused by arson. 
  • False accusation. You were falsely accused of arson by someone who has a motive to harm you. 
  • Mistake of fact. You had a reasonable belief that the property or land was yours or that you had permission to set fire to it.

An attorney will review your case and determine the best defense based on the circumstances of your case.

Facing Arson Charges Can Be Overwhelming. We Can Help.

The criminal defense attorneys at the Law Offices of Kerry L. Armstrong, APLC, are experienced and competent criminal defense attorneys who can help you defend your rights and interests if you are facing arson charges. Contact us today for a free consultation. Don’t let a conviction for arson ruin your life. Let’s fight for your future and freedom.

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Kerry L. Armstrong


Attorney Kerry Armstrong opened up his law firm in June 2007. Mr. Armstrong attended Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego, California, and received his B.S. from Middle Tennessee State University. Kerry L. Armstrong became certified by the State Bar of California’s Board of Legal Specialization for criminal law in August 2020, making him one of the few criminal defense attorneys with a criminal law legal specialization certificate in San Diego County.  Between 2014 – 2019, Mr. Armstrong was selected for inclusion in the California Super Lawyers list, an honor only awarded to 5% of the nation’s attorneys.

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