According to California law, setting fire to property, a building, or a forest is considered an act of arson. Prosecutors diligently ensure that everyone accused of this crime faces the full extent of the law because it is disruptive and sometimes fatal. California Penal Codes 451 and 452 punish arson. Whether you started the fire intentionally or resulted from carelessness will determine the precise charge the prosecution will bring against you.

If accused of deliberate or careless burning, you could be charged with more crimes, including trespassing, homicide, or insurance fraud, in addition to facing a hefty prison sentence. If you or a loved one is being investigated for arson in Santa Ana, you must immediately contact a criminal defense lawyer for legal advice. At Darwish Law, we know the impact of an arson conviction on your life. You can receive the help you need to fight your charges from our outstanding attorneys.

What Arson Means Under California Law

When you intentionally or carelessly burn property, a building, or forested land, you are committing the crime of arson. PC 451 and PC 452 are the two statutes that punish this offense, respectively:

  1. Penal Code 451

California PC 451 prohibits the intentional or malicious burning of property and includes the following provisions:

  • You Set Fire to a Building Structure or Forestland

In this state, setting something on fire to injure it or the occupants is property-burning. The prosecution must show that you intentionally set fire to a structure, bridge, residence, or forest area to show culpability under PC 451.

  • You Acted Willfully and Maliciously

When you started the fire, your acts were willful. According to this statute, accidental fires do not result in severe sentences. On the other side, malicious acts are actions intended to hurt, defraud, or annoy another individual.

  1. Penal Code 452

A less serious version of arson is reckless burning, which happens when there is no malicious or intentional intent behind your actions. According to PC 452, reckless burning is defined by the following criteria:

  • You burned down a building, some property, or some forestland.

  • You acted carelessly. According to this statute, being reckless is acting contrary to what a reasonable person would have done given the circumstances, despite knowing a significant risk involved. A fire started intentionally must not be the same as one started accidentally.

Possible Penalties for Arson Under California Law

Depending on the unique circumstances of your case, you may be subject to any of the following penalties after being found guilty of arson:

  • The nature of your criminal charges. There are two types of arson, including malicious arson and careless burning. The court may occasionally upgrade your charges from simple to aggravated arson.

  • The kind of property that was stolen.

  • The findings of your mental health evaluation.

  • Whether or not the arson resulted in injuries to third parties.

Penalties for Malicious Arson

If you are found guilty of arson, you may face different punishments depending on the details of your case, such as:

  • Your charges' nature. Malicious and careless burning are two different categories of arson. The court may upgrade your charges from simple to aggravated arson.

  • The property involved in the crime and its type

  • Your psychiatric evaluation's findings

  • Whether the arson caused harm to third parties

Penalties for Reckless Burning

Penal Code 452 violations are misdemeanors unless they result in a forest fire due to careless activities. However, the crime becomes questionable when a third party is injured. Reckless burning is a misdemeanor that carries a one-year jail sentence and a $1,000 fine. You risk receiving a two- to six-year jail sentence if you commit a felony.

Penalties for Aggravated Arson

If you burn many structures or seriously hurt a protected person, the prosecutor may charge you with aggravated arson. Additionally, the prosecution may upgrade your charges if you have a PC 452 or 451 conviction on your record. A state prison sentence of ten years is imposed for aggravated arson.

Other Possible Consequences Upon Conviction of Arson

When you complete your prison term or settle your fines, the repercussions of an arson conviction do not cease. Until the conviction is expunged, sealed, or you apply for a governor's pardon, it remains on your criminal record and may continue to impact your life. A conviction for arson may have the following effects on your life:

  • Negative immigration consequences. A violation of PC 451 is a serious felony. A conviction under this statute can attract adverse immigration actions like deportation or inadmissibility to the United States.

  • Difficulty obtaining a job. A criminal conviction in California is accessible to anyone carrying a background check on you. If, for example, you burned property in retaliation for losing employment, potential employers may hesitate to offer you an opportunity.

  • Loss of your professional license. Some professional licensing boards are very strict on the conduct of the professionals they register or license. A felony arson conviction can cause you to lose the license to practice as a doctor, physician, dentist, or lawyer.

  • Loss of Gun Rights. The 451 PC will impact the guilty party's right to own firearms. According to state law, convicted felons cannot buy or own guns in California. You cannot acquire or possess firearms if found guilty of arson, considered a felony.

Sentencing Enhancements

A sentencing enhancement is any circumstance that makes the court impose more severe punishment following your conviction. Arson is already a grave crime, and because of the following circumstances in your case, you run the danger of receiving a lengthy prison term and significant fines:

  • Your actions hurt a firefighter, police officer, or emergency medical responder. Your sentence will be more severe if you are found guilty of a felony, and the prosecution can show that the fire injured a peace officer or a doctor.

  • Numerous people sustained severe physical harm. There are several victims, and the consequences for every felony offense are more severe. Any injury greater than mild harm qualifies as a grave bodily injury under this statute. Therefore, this augmentation cannot be drawn by psychological harm or property damage.

  • You damaged many structures. Arson is the willful or careless burning of things or buildings. If you are found guilty of burning many structures, your prison term will be longer.

  • You employed a unique tool to hasten or postpone the fire's ignition.

Even though the court has the power to increase your punishment following an arson conviction, the aforementioned aggravating elements will result in a sentence enhancement of one to five years. The second prison term is completed following your arson sentence.

Arson as a Strike Under the California Three Strikes Law

Following a conviction for three or more violent felonies, defendants under California's three-strikes legislation are sentenced to 25 years in prison. A conviction under PC 451 is a strike since deliberate arson is a serious crime.

You are regarded as a second offender if you have previously been convicted of a felony and now face being found guilty of starting a fire. As a second striker, you will be given a sentence twice as harsh as the usual one. Arson carries a maximum nine-year prison sentence as a felony. In this instance, second strikers could receive up to 18 years in state prison.

A conviction would make you a third-time offender if you are currently charged under California Penal Code 451 and have already been convicted of two felonies. A third offense conviction for arson carries a sentence of 25 years to life in prison and hefty fines.

Legal Defenses to California Arson Charges

You do not have to wait in jail if facing an arrest or arson charge. Even though arson is a terrible felony, you have the right to defend yourself in court. A strong defense can make the prosecution lower the penalty or drop the charges entirely. The following are a few possible defenses to charges of arson or careless burning:

  • You Accidentally Caused the Fire

Under California law, not all intentional fires are regarded as arson. You could claim that fire was accidental if you did not ignite it on purpose and later burned down or destroyed property. The district attorney and prosecution must show that you intentionally set fire to harm or damage another person to establish your guilt under PC 451.

Note that you cannot have charges dropped if it is determined that you were careless when you started the fire. According to California PC 452, the prosecution may change your charges from deliberate arson to reckless burning.

  • Lack of Enough Evidence

The prosecution faces a difficult task in establishing your intent to set a fire. The likelihood of a conviction is limited unless there is direct or circumstantial evidence to support it. Some of the evidence that is necessary to establish a compelling case for arson includes:

  • An online search for "how to ignite a fire."

  • Criminal intent, such as the desire for vengeance following a job loss.

  • Discovering tangible proof, such as gasoline cans, in your home.

  • Identification of a witness.

  • A reason to seek compensation from an insurance provider. This is possible when you are accused of setting a personal item on fire.

  • Yours was a Case of False Accusation

You could be wrongly accused of arson or misidentified for many reasons. It is frequent for someone acting out of retaliation, rage, or envy to accuse you falsely due to the effect and criminal repercussions of the offense. Everyone may feel anxious in the moments after a fire, and many people may flee the site. Someone who sees you walk out of a burning building might suspect you of setting it on fire and call the police.

In another scenario, the actual criminal may attempt to blame you for the arson to avoid prosecution. With the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney, you can investigate many parts of the case and demonstrate the false accusations plan in court.

  • You Acted Under Duress

When proving your guilt under PC 451 or 452, the prosecution must show that your actions were deliberate. Therefore, you can contest the allegations and avoid being found guilty under these statutes if you can show that you were intimidated, pressured, or coerced to act in the way you did.

  • Lack of Criminal Intent to Commit Arson

Arson is a crime with definite intent. Therefore, the prosecution must show that your conduct was deliberate and willful to obtain a conviction. Furthermore, it must be evident that you intended to do the offense. You won't be found guilty under this provision if you show that you lacked the necessary intent to commit the crime.

  • Expunging an Arson Conviction

A person convicted of this offense is eligible for an expungement if he meets the following criteria:

  • Completes probation satisfactorily.

  • Finishes a prison sentence.

Even if a party breaks the terms of probation, he may still be able to have the case dismissed. But the judge would have the final say in this. According to Penal Code 1203.4, an expungement absolves a person of nearly "all penalties and disabilities" associated with the conviction.

Frequently Asked Questions on Arson

Can I face arson charges if I burn my property?

Even though most incidents of arson involve burning someone else's property, under California PC 452, you may still be arrested and prosecuted even if the property you set on fire was your own. However, the prosecution will only succeed in having you convicted if they can demonstrate your dishonest plans to set fire to your possessions. The aim to recoup money from the insurance provider is one of the reasons for arson accusations involving personal property.

Is burning a place of worship an aggravating factor for arson charges?

You will be sentenced to the harshest possible punishment for felony arson if you are found guilty of burning down a structure because of its use as a house of worship. A ten-year sentence enhancement is possible if you intentionally set fire to a house of worship to hurt someone else.

What Other Offenses are Related to Arson?

  1. Trespass – PC 602

Trespassing is illegal in California according to Penal Code 602 PC. Trespassing occurs when someone enters or lingers on another person's property without authorization or a legitimate reason to do so. In contrast to arson, this legislation does not demand that the defendant behaves with any particular willfulness or maliciousness.

  1. Burglary – PC 459

According to Penal Code 459 PC, a burglary happens when someone enters a home, business, or room with the aim to steal something or to conduct a crime once inside. Keep in mind that burglary has a more specific application compared to arson. PC 459 does not apply to "structures" or "forest land," only to residential or commercial structures.

  1. First-degree murder – PC 187

First-degree murder may be tried in accordance with Penal Code 187 PC when killing:

  • Is carried out using a destructive device, ammunition with armor-piercing rounds, poison, laying in wait, and torture.

  • Is carried out in an intentional, deliberate, and premeditated manner.

  • Invokes the criminal murder rule in California.

Like arson, the prosecution must show evidence of the defendant’s willfulness to be convicted of first-degree murder.

What happens during an arson investigation?

Arson is one of the most serious offenses in California because of the extent of the damage and potential injuries that can result from the circumstances. Since the prosecution must demonstrate that your careless or purposeful actions caused the alleged fire, arson is particularly difficult to prosecute. The investigators use cutting-edge equipment and chemical experts to identify the fire's cause and connect it to your actions. They can also speak with witnesses and invite them to give their testimonies.

The charges you will be subject to and the conclusion of an arson investigation greatly influence your potential punishments. You will be charged with reckless burning if the investigators find that your acts were merely careless. However, the prosecutor could file PC 451 or 451.5 charges if you committed a harmful act or injured someone else. You can take advantage of the opportunity to obtain a release on bail and work with your counsel to develop a good defense for the allegations because investigations into this crime take some time.

Hire a Skilled Criminal Defense Lawyer Near Me

Setting fire to the land, a building, or a forest is prohibited by California law. You are charged with arson if you intentionally or carelessly started the fire. Fires result in significant property damage and injuries, both accidentally and intentionally. Because of this, anyone found guilty of arson faces vigorous prosecution and severe sentences. The prosecution will typically accuse you of felony arson, which carries harsh penalties if proven guilty.

Fortunately for you, you could defend your arson charges and avoid going to prison. You could hire a competent lawyer to build your defense and fight the. Arson regulations in California are extremely intricate. You must therefore work through your PC 451 and 452 charges under the direction of an experienced attorney.

At Darwish Law, we devote our expertise to assisting you in defending against the allegations and obtaining a favorable result. We assist clients seeking legal counsel or representation in Santa Ana, California. Call us at 714-887-4810 for your case review and legal counsel.