Arson FAQs – Penal Code Section 451

California Arson Frequently Asked Questions

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What is the definition of arson?

Arson is any willful, malicious or reckless act that causes burning of structure, forest, land, or property.

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Who performs arson investigations?

Arson investigations are performed, in large part, by the County Fire Department in which the fire took place. Other government and private agencies can become involved in arson investigations for the purposes of criminal prosecutions and insurance coverage.

If you are faced with an arson charge, it is important to hire your own expert arson investigator so that the actual cause of the fire can be disputed by experts.

Here are the links to some of California’s Agencies that investigate arson:

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What effect do arson investigations have on my charges?

The outcome of an arson investigation can greatly affect what you are charged with and the severity of the charge. If it was determined that you recklessly started the fire, then there is a greater chance that the charge would be filed as a misdemeanor. However, if the investigators believe that the fire was started willfully and maliciously, then you will likely be facing a felony arson charge, or even worse, a strike.

The investigation process is critical to building a defense to any criminal allegation. This is because what is “found” and what conclusions the evidence leads law enforcement to believe can often be one-sided. It is important to have a private investigator working with you who can find new evidence, witnesses, etc. that can shine light on your criminal case. The skilled criminal defense attorneys at Wallin & Klarich work closely with a network of highly trained investigators who have proven to be the difference between freedom and life in prison.

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What is first degree arson?

In California, arson is not separated into degrees. Rather, arson is punished by way of a felony or misdemeanor charge. Felony arson is the willful or malicious burning of a structure, forest, land or property. Misdemeanor arson is the reckless burning of a structure, forest, land or property. However, even the reckless burning of a structure, forest, land or property can be charged as a felony if someone was injured, there was extensive damage, etc. Thus, an arson that was started recklessly can be charged either as a felony or as a misdemeanor. This type of offense is called a “wobbler.”

If a person was intentionally killed during a fire, and it can be proven that the fire was set after the defendant premeditated and deliberated about the act, then the defendant can be charged with first-degree murder. Homicide charges, unlike arson, in the state of California are separated into degrees.

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What is the difference between simple and aggravated arson?

Simple arson is the willful and malicious burning of a structure, forest, land or property. Aggravated arson is the willful, malicious, deliberate and premeditated burning of a structure, forest, land or property with the intent to injury one or more persons and causing damages greater than $5.65 million.

A conviction for arson of a structure or forest land, charged under California Penal Code Section 451(c) is a felony punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for two, four or six years. A simple arson of property, that is not your own personal property, charged under California Penal Code Section 451(d) is a felony punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for 16 months, two, or three years.

Aggravated arson, charged under California Penal Code Section 451.5 shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison by 10 years to life.

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What does it mean to “set fire” or “burn”?

To set fire to or burn means to damage or destroy with fire either all or part of something, no matter how small the part.

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When is an act willful or malicious?

Someone commits an act willfully when he or she does it willingly or on purpose. Someone acts maliciously when he or she intentionally does a wrongful act or when he or she acts with the unlawful intent to defraud, annoy, or injure someone else.

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Misdemeanor Arson – Penal Code Section 452

While most arson is considered severe and will be charged as a felony, hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney can greatly increase your chances of having the charges reduced to a misdemeanor under California Penal Code Section 452. As previously discussed, most arson requires malicious or willful conduct.

However, if it can be shown that a person “recklessly” set fire to any structure, forest land or property, then such conduct could be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor. A person acts recklessly when (1) he or she is aware that his or her actions present a substantial and unjustifiable risk of causing a fire, (2) he or she ignores that risk, and (3) ignoring the risk is a gross deviation from what a reasonable person would have done in the same situation.

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