Can You Still Be Charged with Arson if You Start a Fire Accidentally?
Under California law, the legal definition of arson reads as follows at California Penal Code Section 451: “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.” This offense is charged as a felony.
To charge you with the crime of arson, the prosecution must prove that you acted both willfully and maliciously. “Willfully” means the act was committed willingly and on purpose. “Maliciously” means it was done with the intent to commit a wrongful act, or with unlawful intent to injure, defraud, or annoy another person. If you accidentally started a fire, you cannot be charged with arson, because you did not start it intentionally.
Could You Be Facing Other Charges if You Accidentally Started a Fire?
After accidentally starting a fire, you could be facing lesser charges, depending on the circumstances. Unlawfully causing a fire is a separate misdemeanor offense, defined as follows at California Penal Code Section 452: “A person is guilty of unlawfully causing a fire when he recklessly sets fire to or burns or causes to be burned, any structure, forest land or property.” If you acted recklessly and your actions caused a fire, even though you did not intend to start one, you could be charged with unlawfully causing a fire.
To convict you of this offense, the prosecution would have to show that you took a substantial, unjustifiable risk–knowing that your actions could cause a forest, structure, or personal property to burn and consciously disregarding the potential consequences of your actions. Your behavior must have been outside the norm of how a prudent person would act.
What Penalties Are You Facing If You Are Charged with Arson?
When a person is convicted of arson, penalties can vary depending on the type and amount of damage done:
- For a fire that causes great bodily injury, arson is punishable by a two, four, or six-year prison sentence, or a county jail term of not more than one year, or a fine, or both imprisonment and fine.
- For a fire that causes an inhabited structure or property to burn, penalties for arson may include a prison sentence of two, three, or four years, a county jail sentence of not more than one year, a fine, or both fine and imprisonment.
- For fire of structure or forest land, arson is a felony offense and carries penalties that may include 16 months, two years, or three years in state prison, not more than six months in county jail, a fine, or both imprisonment and a fine.
- For a fire of property, arson is charged as a misdemeanor. This crime does not include burning one’s own personal property, unless it causes injury to another person, or to forest land or property, or another person’s structure.
What Are the Defenses Against Arson Charges?
The defenses our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys will raise will depend on the circumstances and facts in your case. Common defenses against arson include:
- False accusation
- Mistaken identity
- Fire was started accidentally
- Insufficient evidence
If you are facing charges of arson or unlawfully causing a fire, call Werksman Jackson & Quinn LLP at (213) 688-0460 right away. Your best chance of obtaining the best possible outcome is to have experienced Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers in your corner, protecting your rights and your future. We have decades of experience handling some of the most complex, high-stakes cases in California.