ventura arson defense attorney

In California, the crime of intentionally and maliciously setting a fire usually falls into one of these two categories:

  • Malicious arson
  • Reckless burning

Malicious arson is the more serious of the two charges, punishable by up to nine years in state prison depending on the facts of your case. Reckless burning isn’t as serious, but punishments can range as high as six years in state prison for a felony conviction.

Arson charges are very serious, and if you or someone you know has been charged with arson in the state of California, it’s important to speak with a defense attorney as soon as possible.

What is arson?

As we mentioned above, California usually charges arson cases as malicious arson or reckless burning. What’s the difference? It all comes down to the “elements of the crime.”

In order to convict someone of a crime, a prosecutor has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that certain facts of the case were true. These are known as the “elements of the crime,” and malicious arson (Penal Code 451 PC) has two elements:

  1. The defendant burned or set fire to a structure, property or forest
  2. The defendant did so maliciously

In other words, the prosecutor has to show that the defendant intentionally started the fire in a malicious arson case. Then, reckless burning charges (452 PC) apply in cases where the defendant did not act maliciously, but instead started a fire out of recklessness:

  1. The defendant burned or set fire to a structure, property or forest
  2. The defendant did so recklessly

State law defines “reckless” as knowingly doing something that presents a substantial risk of causing a fire, well outside the norms of how a reasonable person would act in that situation.

Examples of arson charges

We just covered a lot in a few short paragraphs, so let’s discuss three examples of arson cases and how they might be charged in California:

Example 1: Mark and Christina are dating. After some time together, Christina breaks up with Mark and begins seeing a new partner. In a fit of jealousy, Mark visits Christina’s house at night and sets her car on fire. This is a clearcut example of malicious arson.

Example 2: Bill is going camping. Rather than extinguish his campfire, he assumes that it will naturally burn itself out. Unfortunately, the campfire spreads and starts a forest fire. In this case, Bill likely acted recklessly and could be charged with reckless burning.

Example 3: Tom is going camping. He pours water on his campfire and attempts to thoroughly extinguish it. He is unsuccessful, however. Later on, a hot ember blows free and starts a forest fire. Because Tom acted in a manner that an average person would find to be reasonable, he likely is not guilty of reckless burning. Accidents are not enough to convict you of reckless burning.

Penalties for arson in California

The penalties for arson in California depend on whether you are charged with malicious arson or reckless burning, what property was burned and if anyone sustained injuries.

Willful or malicious arson

Willful or malicious arson is always a felony in California, and its penalties depend on the facts of your case.

  • Malicious arson of personal property: 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years
  • Malicious arson of a structure or forest land: 2, 4, or 6 years
  • Arson that results in bodily injury: 5, 7, or 9 years
  • Malicious arson resulting in the burning of an inhabited structure or property: 3, 5, or 8 years
  • A strike on your criminal record under California’s Three Strikes Law

Reckless burning

Reckless burning is a misdemeanor, unless the property burned is a structure or forestland, or if the burning causes great bodily injury. In those cases, it is a “wobbler” offense, which can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.

Penalties for misdemeanor reckless burning include:

  • Up to 6 months in county jail
  • A fine of up to $1,000

Potential penalties for other forms of “wobbler” reckless burning include:

  • Up to 6 months or 1 year in county jail for a misdemeanor sentence
  • Up to 2, 3, 4, or 6 years in the California state prison for a felony sentence

Aggravated arson

You may face additional penalties if convicted of “aggravated” arson. You can be charged with aggravated arson under the following circumstances:

  • You have a prior felony arson conviction
  • You used a device to accelerate the fire or delay ignition
  • More than one person was injured as a result of the fire
  • More than one structure burned as a result of the fire
  • Emergency personnel (firefighter or police officer) suffered injuries in the fire

Additional aggravating factors that may lead to harsher or additional penalties include:

  • Setting fire to a church or other “place of worship”
  • Setting fire in retaliation against a landlord or person who you believed to be the owner of the structure
  • A prior arson conviction within the past 10 years

Defenses against arson charges

As we mentioned above, in order to convict someone of arson, a prosecutor has to show that the defendant either willfully or recklessly started the fire. If your attorney proves that the fire started by accident, you cannot be convicted for arson.

When you work with a skilled criminal defense attorney, your lawyer will carefully review the evidence and facts of your case. Maybe it was a case of mistaken identity or insufficient evidence? Your attorney will be the primary advocate for your defense and will fight to expose flaws in the prosecution’s case: working to have your charges reduced or dropped entirely.

Robert M. Helfend has defended clients throughout the Los Angeles and Ventura area since 1984, securing thousands of favorable judgments for his clients in that time. He is rated as a top attorney by SuperLawyers, the National Trial Lawyers Top 100 and Lead Counsel. Call today for your free case evaluation – 805-273-5611.