Arson Laws in California – Penal Code 451 and 452 PC
California Penal Code 451 PC defines the crime of arson as willfully and maliciously setting a fire, causing, or aiding another person someone to burn a structure, forest land, or property. This serious offense is often called “malicious arson” and a felony that carries up to nine years in state prison.
The related Penal Code 452 PC is defined as recklessly starting a fire causing injury to another person or damaging property.
This crime is often called “reckless burning” and a “wobbler” that prosecutors can file as a misdemeanor or felony crime.
It's not a secret that California has an arid climate for most of the year, making it a high risk for forest fires. Thus, the state treats arson crimes quite harshly.
Intentional acts of arson include an owner setting fire to their business to collect insurance money. Another example comprises someone setting fire to someone's home or car as an act of revenge. Our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys provide an overview of the arson laws below.
Defining California Penal Code 451 PC Subsections
California Penal Code 451 PC has several subsections defining various forms of arson, such as:
- Penal Code Section 451(a) - arson causing bodily injury to victims;
- Penal Code Section 451(b) - arson of an inhabited structure;
- Penal Code Section 451(c) - arson of an uninhabited structure or forest;
- Penal Code Section 451(d)- arson of the defendant's property OR another person's property.
In each of these arson charges above, there are different elements of the crime that prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt. One common theme of all these subsections is that the prosecution must show that the arson was maliciously and willfully done.
What is the Legal Definition of Arson?
California Penal Code Section 451 defines arson as follows:
- "Any person is guilty of arson when they willfully and maliciously sets fire to or burns or causes to be burned, or who aids, or procures the burning of, any structure, forest land, or property."
Each word within this definition is essential for the defense and prosecution of arson cases. Let's discuss the crucial terms below for clarity:
- a willful action is something done on purpose;
- a malicious action is knowing intent to do wrong;
- a structure, in the context of arson, refers to any building, bridge, etc.
- a forest land is any wooded, grassy, or brush-covered area;
- a property is any land that isn't considered forest land.
To obtain a conviction for arson, the prosecutor must prove all the elements of the crime beyond any reasonable doubt. The factors are listed within California Criminal Jury Instructions 1515 as follows:
- defendant set ﬁre to or burned, or
- caused the burning of a structure, forest land, or property, and
- their act was done willfully and maliciously.
What are the Punishments for Arson?
The penalties for PC 451 arson will vary widely as the details of the crime are crucial factors in the penalties, such as the type of property burned and whether someone was injured. If you are convicted of arson under Penal Code 451, the penalties include:
- up to three years in jail for malicious arson of property;
- up to six years in jail for malicious arson of structure or forest;
- up to eight years in jail for malicious arson of an inhabited structure;
- up to nine years in jail for arson, which causes great bodily injury.
Whether the sentence will be served in a county jail or state prison will also vary depending on the seriousness of the arson conviction.
Further, the severity of the arson case will determine the level of fines the defendant is ordered to pay. The specific factors that increase the seriousness of arson include the following:
- the number of people affected by the arson,
- the extent of the damage done by arson, and
- if the defendant has any prior arson convictions.
What are the Aggravating Circumstances?
In the more severe arson cases, there are “aggravated circumstances” that can increase the penalties or cause enhancements to the sentence, including:
- a considerable amount of damage as a result of the arson;
- defendant with previous arson convictions;
- multiple severe injuries for victims due to the arson,
- when first responders are harmed in the arson.
A common arson incident includes an owner intentionally setting fire to their property to defraud their insurance company. If convicted, they could have not only a conviction for arson but also insurance fraud.
What are the Defenses for Arson Charges?
If you have been accused of arson in California, you need to consult with a criminal lawyer immediately to have the best chance at a favorable outcome. Depending on the exact charges, we can use several common defense strategies for arson charges, such as the following:
- the fire was not set intentionally; instead, it was an accident;
- the fire was caused by unrelated equipment malfunction,
- false accusations and wrongfully arrested.
Recall that the prosecutor must prove the defendant acted willfully. Maybe we can cast reasonable doubt on this crucial element by closely examining the details. The specific defense will always depend on the evidence and circumstances of the arson case.
Negotiating with the prosecutor for reduced charges might be possible, or getting the case dismissed. Further, through prefiling intervention, we may be able to persuade law enforcement and the prosecution from filing formal criminal charges before any courtroom proceedings, known as a “DA reject.”
Cron, Israels & Stark is based in Los Angeles County, and we serve people across Southern California, including Orange County, Ventura County, Santa Barbara County, Riverside, and San Bernardino.
We are located at 11755 Wilshire Blvd, 15th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90025. Contact our law firm for a free consultation at (424) 372-3112 or fill out our contact form.