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What Is Arson?

Arson refers to the burning of property with malicious intent. Arson can occur in a forest, building or another person’s property. Generally speaking, arson is illegal in all states; however, punishments and specific laws vary depending on each state.

Historically speaking, Arson law used to only be able to apply to a residence per Common Law. Today the laws surrounding arson have been extended to cover any property that is burned with malicious intent. Arson has several different degrees, which can impact the severity of the penalties. Depending on the state, the definition of the varying degrees of arson can change. Arson is always classified as a felony.

What Elements Are Required to Prove Arson?

Arson is not something that is committed every time you light a match. Certain factors must occur for a crime of arson to take place.

  • Intent: Intent is one of the most difficult parts of arson to be proved, and arson cannot exist without intent. Intent has to be shown that the person wanted to burn someone’s property or the forest on purpose. To prove intent, the actions immediately before the crime are examined.
  • Recklessness: Depending on the state, recklessness can be added to an arson charge if the fire was started due to reckless or irresponsible behaviors. California is a state that enforces this due to the risk of severe wildfires in California.
  • Property damage: Property damage must occur for arson to be charged. Individuals can be charged with arson if they damaged their own property for fraudulent purposes or if they damaged another person’s property.
  • Explosion: Some states have added explosion to arson. This means that if an individual causes an explosion and destroys another person's property with the debris of that explosion, they can be charged with arson.
  • Direct or indirect:: Arson crimes have a chain of causation. What this means is that if someone causes a fire that burns another person’s home, they can be charged with arson for the damages they caused to the other person’s home.

Different Degrees of Arson

Arson typically has different degrees of severity. How arson is classified depends on the laws of each state. Generally speaking, arson is classified as follows:

  • First-degree arson: Setting fire to a building that is occupied.
  • Second-degree arson: Setting fire to a building that is not occupied.
  • Third-degree arson: Setting fire to an abandoned property.

Jail times for the different degrees of arson can vary depending on each state’s individual statutes. Fines for arson-related crimes can be more than $50,000 and time in prison can exceed 30 years in some states.

Penalties for Arson Crimes

The different penalties associated with arson vary widely and are decided by the state. The court will look at the unique facts of each incident and determine the appropriate punishment based on the state’s individual statutes.

In Pennsylvania, there are six categories of arson to include: arson endangering persons, arson endangering property, aggravated arson, reckless burning or exploding, arson of historic resource, and dangerous burning. Within these categories of arson, there are three different degrees and punishments. Arson in the first degree can have up to 20 years in prison and fines of up to $25,000. Arson in the second degree can have up to 10 years in prison and fines up to $25,000. Arson in the third degree can have up to seven years in prison and fines up to $15,000. If any firefighter, police officer or other person engaged in helping the fire is injured, the penalty can go up to 40 years in prison.

Depending on the individual state, if recklessness or explosive charges are associated with the arson crime, financial penalties and jail sentence can significantly increase. This is also true if arson is declared to be a federal crime when the arsonist damages or destroys any property used in interstate or foreign commerce. Crimes of this nature can have a prison sentence of 5-20 years and 7-40 years if anyone is injured in the fire.

What Is Accidental Arson?

Being convicted of Arson depends on malicious intent. There has to be premeditation and planning to satisfy what is required to prove intent. This is why when a fire happens by accident; arson cannot be proven. Usually, individuals who start fires by accident would be charged with gross negligence. In many cases, accidental fires are caused by curious children.

Is Arson a Felony or Misdemeanor?

Arson is typically a felony because of the severe dangers the crime causes. Where the severity of arson changes is when a building is intentionally burnt down that is unoccupied versus occupied. Additionally, arson offenses that occur in remote areas have lesser penalties than those in high-risk wildfire areas or the center of highly populated areas.

Some individuals commit arson with the purpose of collecting insurance money. These offenses are more severe because the offender can also be charged with insurance fraud, and different degrees of arson depending on the damages caused.

Arson can usually only be considered a misdemeanor when it involves minimal destruction. If something small such as a shoe is burned in the background, there are other charges such as reckless burning that could be used rather than arson.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why Is Arson Committed?

Arson can be committed for a variety of reasons. Some common reasons are:

  • Profit: Profit usually occurs when the individual can gain insurance money by burning their property.
  • Revenge: Revenge can occur when a fire is started to retaliate against a group or person to destroy their property.
  • Extremism: Extremism is a dangerous motive for arson that can include setting the fire for religious, social or political reasons.
  • Excitement: Excitement is a frightening motive for arson because the individual enjoys the destruction they cause with the fires they set.
  • Concealment: Concealment can use arson to hide another crime such as murder.

Why Is Arson Difficult to Prove?

Arson is challenging to prove because of the intent element. Many times, it is not easy to prove intent, whereas, proving a fire damaged property is simple. Without malicious intent, arson charges will usually not stick. The burden is generally on the property owner or prosecutor to find evidence showing malicious intent, and then once that is acquired, the degree of arson can be determined.

What Key Factors Do Arson Investigators Look for?

When investigators are trying to solve potential arson crimes, they have to analyze what caused the fire. Once they determine causation, they will be able to then assess whether a certain individual had the necessary intent to be charged with arson. Without knowing the cause of the fire, it is difficult for investigators to link evidence to individuals who committed arson-related crimes.

Why Are Arson Offenses Taken Seriously?

Arson is a very serious crime because of the severe damages it can cause. For example, in older neighborhoods, homes may be constructed from wood and be destroyed. If the fire gets near flammable materials, there could be explosions and deaths as a result of those explosions. Lastly, if arson is in a wildfire risk area, it could damage dozens of homes before it can be contained. Arson risks not only homes but also, personal safety, which is why each state has very strict arson statutes in place to incarcerate and fine individuals who maliciously and purposely commit arson.

Arson Glossary Definition

Arson occurs when the property of another is burned with malicious intent. Arson can occur in buildings, forests or any other individual’s property. When trying to prove Arson charges, there must be a malicious intent combined with the actual action of burning another person’s property to be charged. Arson statutes can differ depending on which state the crime occurs. Half of all arson crimes are committed by individuals under 18 years of age.