California Penal Code Section 451 PC and 452 PC: Arson
1. Definition and Elements of the Crime
Fires are universally feared for their destructive and unpredictable nature and can destroy entire neighborhoods if not controlled. As a result, the crime of arson, or intentionally starting fires, is a very serious offense in California. Under California Penal Code Section 451 PC, maliciously setting a fire is a serious felony that can result in lengthy prison sentences, and under California Penal Code Section 452 PC, recklessly starting a fire that causes damage and/or injury is a "wobbler" that can also lead to felony charges.
To prove malicious arson under California Penal Code Section 451 PC, the prosecutor must be able establish the following elements:
- The defendant set fire to or burned (or helped someone burn) a structure, forest land or other property AND
- He or she acted willfully and maliciously
Someone acts 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 another person.
Malicious arson can involve any of the following felony offenses:
- California Penal Code Section 451(a) PC – If the malicious arson causes another to suffer great bodily injury, the defendant can be sentenced to up to nine years in prison.
- California Penal Code Section 451(b) PC – If an inhabited building is burned due to malicious arson, the defendant can be sentenced to up to eight years in prison
- California Penal Code Section 451(c) PC – If a non-inhabited structure or forest is burned as a result of the malicious arson, the defendant can be sentenced to up to six years in prison.
- California Penal Code Section 451(d) PC – If the defendant’s or someone else’s property is burned as a result of the malicious arson, the defendant can be sentenced to up to three years in prison.
To prove reckless arson under California Penal Code Section 452 PC, the following elements must be present:
- The defendant set fire to or burned (or assisted in burning) a structure, forest land or property AND
- The defendant did so recklessly
A person acts recklessly when he or she is aware of that his or her actions present a substantial and unjustifiable risk of causing a fire, he or she ignores that risk, and ignoring the risk is a gross departure from what a reasonable person would have done in the same situation.
A person does not unlawfully cause a fire if the only thing burned is his or her own personal property, unless he or she acts with the intent to defraud, or the fire also injures someone else or burns their structure, forest land or property.
2. Related Offenses
Other similar or related offenses include:
- Insurance Fraud
- Burglary - California Penal Code Section 459 PC
- Trespassing - California Penal Code Section 602 PC
A business owner burns down his store one night in order to cash in on his fire insurance policy as part of an insurance fraud scheme. This business owner could be charged with malicious arson under California Penal Code Section 451 PC as he intentionally started the fire as part of a fraud scheme.
In another example, a man decides to burn some of his own paperwork in his backyard. While conducting the controlled fire, the wind suddenly picks up and his neighbor's house catches fire. This man could be charged with reckless arson under California Penal Code Section 452 PC only if his actions are shown to be widely divergent from how a reasonable person would have conducted the controlled fire.
4. Defenses to Arson
Fires that cause substantial damage may often be caused by an error or oversight. If the fire was started unintentionally, the defendant may have a valid accident defense if charged with arson. However, if the defendant actions were so far outside the norm that they would be considered reckless, criminal charges may still apply.
Under California Penal Code Section 452 PC, reckless arson is a "wobbler" which can be charged as a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the defendant's criminal history and whether someone was injured, whether the fire damages an inhabited structure, and whether the defendant was only burning his personal property.
For someone convicted of felony arson, the sentence can include up to nine years in prison and a possible "strike" under California's Three Strikes Law if the arson was "malicious."
In addition, a person may be sentenced to additional years in prison if they have been found to have committed aggravated arson. A conviction for aggravated arson can add an additional one to five years in prison. A person can be found to have committed aggravated arson if any of the following exist:
- The defendant has a prior arson conviction
- A firefighter or other emergency personnel suffered a great bodily injury as a result of the fire
- More than one person suffered great bodily injury in the fire
- Multiple structures were burned
- OR the defendant used an incendiary device
In addition, someone convicted of arson may have to register as an arson offender.
6. Criminal Defense for Arson Cases
Arson is a very serious criminal offense that can carry lengthy prison sentences for those convicted. If you are the target of an arson investigation, it is critical that you speak with an experienced Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney right away. Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney Michael Kraut is a former Deputy District Attorney with over 14 years of prosecutorial experience who previously prosecuted major felonies. Mr. Kraut has established key relationships with renowned arson investigators throughout the Los Angeles area and is highly adept at handling arson cases.
For more information about arson, and to schedule your free consultation, contact Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney Michael Kraut at the Kraut Law Group located at 6255 Sunset Boulevard, Suite 1520, Los Angeles, CA 90028. Mr. Kraut can be reached 24/7 at 888-334-6344 or 323-464-6453.