Arson Defenses – Penal Code Section 451
Defendant Lacked the Requisite Intent to Commit Arson
Under California Arson law, the defendant must have set the fire willfully and maliciously. In order to be convicted of this crime, the prosecution must prove that the defendant’s illegal act or omission occurred intentionally and without regard to motive or ignorance of the act’s prohibited character. The specific intent to set fire to or burn or cause to be burned the relevant structure or forest land is not an element of arson. As such, the prosecution must show that the person knew what he or she was doing, intended to do it, and was acting as a free agent without coercion in setting any relevant structure on fire.
The Defendant Caused the Fire, but it was an Accident
If the fire was a result of an accident, then the defendant cannot be convicted of felony arson. In fact if we can establish that the fire was the result of an accident then this can result in our client being acquitted or the charges dismissed.
If it can be shown that the fire was started “accidentally” then in order for the accused to be found guilty of misdemeanor arson the prosecution must show each of the following:
1.That the accused was aware that his or her actions presented a substantial and unjustifiable risk of causing a fire;
2.That the defendant ignored that risk; and
3.That ignoring the risk was a gross deviation from what a reasonable person would have done in the same situation.
Intoxication May be a Defense to Arson
Arson is a general intent crime. Therefore, voluntary intoxication is not a legal defense to arson. In fact, the law emphasizes a strong relationship between alcohol intoxication and arson, and it would be anomalous to allow evidence of intoxication to relieve a person of responsibility for this crime. However, involuntary intoxication is a legal defense to this crime, and the defendant may be allowed to offer such evidence to negate the element of intent.