Fire incidents result in significant loss of property and inherent danger to human life. For this reason, any deliberate and malicious burning of property is a criminal offense. In California, the offense, referred to as arson, is punishable under PC 451 with the aim of setting an example to the offender to deter others from engaging in the same crime. Without adequate legal representation, you risk facing the life-changing consequences of an arson conviction.

At Chula Vista Criminal Attorney, we invest our wealth of experience in our clients’ cases to ensure they receive the best legal outcome.

The Crime of Arson Under California Law

Anyone who intentionally and maliciously burns, causes to be burned, counsels, aids, or procures the burning of forest land, property, or a structure is guilty of malicious arson and liable to the penalties detailed under PC 451.  

Anyone who recklessly causes to be burned, sets fire to, or burns forest land, property, or a structure is guilty of reckless arson and punishable under PC 452.

From the above definitions, you can either intentionally or recklessly set fire to property, a structure, or forest land. Both crimes require varying elements to be proven by prosecutors for a conviction. It also follows that the penalties also differ, as detailed below.

  1. Malicious Arson Under PC 451

Malicious arson requires willful action, and the property on focus is forest land, a structure, or any other property.

PC 451’s definition of arson requires prosecutors to prove the following in their case:

  • You acted intentionally and maliciously, and
  • You caused to burn, set fire to, or burned forest land, property, or a structure.

Fires cause property damage, no matter how small. Therefore, a simple charring of wood is sufficient for prosecutors to pursue arson charges.

Addressing three key aspects will help in better understanding malicious arson.

  • Willful and malicious action
  • Forest land, structure, and
  • Property

Willful and Malicious Action

Your intentions and actions will come under focus. Prosecutors must show that you committed the acts aiming to either defraud an insurance company, injure someone, or damage another’s property out of spite, a need for revenge, annoyance, or any other reason.

Further, they must prove that you took deliberate action to cause to burn or set fire to the property, forest land, or structure.  

Forest land and Structure

Under PC 451, forest land includes forests, grasslands, bush-covered land, woods, wetlands, and cut-over land. Buildings, tunnels, bridges, power plants, motor vehicles, public or commercial tents are examples of the structures taken into account.

Fixtures are an integral part of the building. They too, are classified under structures.


Property includes any form of personal assets or belonging. Therefore, private land, trash, clothing, documents, appliances, and furniture make the property list. However, this property must belong to another.

As a general principle, you cannot be charged for arson for your property. However, should the fire result in injuring another, burning of another individual’s property, or burning the property with the intent to defraud, you will face arson charges.

Penalties For Malicious Arson

Malicious arson is a felony. Penalties upon conviction depend on:

  • The property burned in the case
  • If someone else suffered a burn injury

Being convicted for malicious arson of private property results in a prison sentence of 16 months, two or three years. For arson of forest land or a structure, you are looking at two, four, or six years in prison, while three, five, or eight years for arson on an inhabited property or structure.

For arson cases where a victim suffered significant bodily injury, you will be sentenced to five, seven, or nine years in prison.

Additionally, you will be required to pay up to $10,000 in fines or $50,000 or twice the amount of your expected financial gain if your actions were aimed at defrauding an individual or institution.

You will also receive a strike on your record pursuant to California’s Three Strikes Law and be required to register as an offender for life. The registration is limited to those convicted as adults.

Sentencing Enhancements for Malicious Arson

Sentence enhancements are issued to offenders with aggravating circumstances in the cases, which can be either of the following:

  • A prior felony conviction for malicious or reckless arson
  • The fire damaged more than one structure
  • A firefighter, police officer, or emergency personnel suffered significant bodily injury because of the fire.
  • At least two victims suffered significant bodily harm
  • You used a device to accelerate or delay the ignition to start the fire

If any of the above aggravating factors are present in your case, the court will impose an extra one to a five-year prison sentence.

You risk facing a 10-year prison to life for malicious arson with the intent to injure another person or damage to an inhabited structure if any of the following circumstances are proven:

  • You have a prior arson conviction within the past ten years
  • The fire caused damage to more than five structures
  • The value of the damaged property and other incidental losses and costs, including expenses incurred to contain and extinguish the fire, total to more than $5,650,000

Additional Consequences of a Malicious Arson Conviction

The list of the consequences of a conviction under PC 451 does not end with time behind bars and fines. If found guilty, you will lose your gun rights and face deportation if you are a non-citizen.

Any individual convicted of a felony is prohibited from acquiring or possessing a firearm. Therefore, upon conviction, your guns will be confiscated, and you will be denied owning or obtaining a gun in the future.  

Arson is an inadmissible or  deportable offense. You will be deported back to the country of origin and marked as inadmissible if found guilty. Thus, you will be denied re-entry to the US.

If you are a legal resident, the naturalization process will be adversely affected. You can still seek relief from removal proceedings if you qualify for adjustment of status,  deferred action, or under temporary protected status.

  1. Reckless Arson Under PC 452

Reckless arson charges only end up in convictions if the prosecution proves the following:

  • You were aware that your actions posed a significant and unjustifiable risk of a fire
  • You ignored the risks. Thus you acted with complete disregard for safety
  • Your actions grossly deviated from acts a reasonable person would have taken given the circumstances

Recklessness, in this case, is a standard higher than ordinary carelessness, error in judgment, or negligence. Any act of negligence, error in judgment, or carelessness that results in a fire is considered accidental. Thus, you won’t face arson charges if your actions are deemed accidental. 

Penalties for Reckless Arson

Reckless arson of personal property is a misdemeanor offense. Penalties for the crime include a fine of up to $1,000 and imprisonment of up to 6 months in jail.

The offense is a wobbler should the arson involve structures or forestland or a victim suffered significant bodily injury. Prosecutors can pursue misdemeanor or felony charges. A conviction results in the following penalties:

  • For recklessly burning forestland or a structure, up to 6 months in jail for a misdemeanor conviction and 16 months, 2, or 3 years in prison if convicted of a felony
  • For recklessly burning an inhabited property, up to one year in jail for a misdemeanor conviction, and 2, 3, or 4 years in prison for a felony conviction.
  • For reckless burning, which led to a victim suffering significant bodily injury, up to one year in jail for a misdemeanor conviction, and 2, 4, or 6 years if convicted of a felony.

Legal Defenses for Arson

The penalties imposed on defendants convicted of arson charges are hefty. An experienced criminal defense attorney will work to have the charges reduced, if not have them dismissed altogether. Here’s a look at the possible defenses he/she will use.

The Fire Was an Accident

Some fires are purely accidental.

In the case of malicious arson, arguing that the fire was an accident is possible if the prosecution failed to prove malicious intent beyond a reasonable doubt. The adverse consequence you could face without malicious intent is reckless arson.

For reckless arson, the prosecution has to prove reckless action, that you were aware of the danger a fire could cause, and your actions disregarded safety measures a reasonable person would have otherwise taken given the circumstances. However, proving reckless behavior is problematic in situations like passing out while smoking or being intoxicated and knocking over a lantern, which caused the fire. In this case, you could not comprehend the risk your actions caused.

The Fire Was Not a Product of Arson

Several factors, other than arson, cause fires. It is easy to jump at the simplest conclusion that a fire resulted from arson. It is especially the case if the asset was a structure or property. 

Other fire causes include faulty or old wiring, faulty electric appliances, lightning, electricity surges, and harsh weather conditions. Any of these causes is a possibility, and with the help of your attorney, you can prove you did not cause the fire.

Insufficient Evidence

The DA provides direct or circumstantial evidence to prove their case. With direct evidence, witnesses could testify to seeing you start the fire. Alternatively, video footage capturing you starting the fire is also enough to find you guilty.

As for circumstantial evidence, you can only be found guilty if the evidence presented causes a person to reasonably infer or conclude that you committed the offense. For example, based on your computer searches and your presence in a fire incident likely points to you as the culprit.

Without direct evidence, the DA will rely on circumstantial evidence. Since circumstantial evidence relies on inference, it is not full-proof in proving your guilt. Therefore your attorney can question its reliability.

Lack of Intent to Defraud

You can only face arson charges for your property if you burnt the property to benefit from an insurance claim. An attorney can challenge the fraud claim by presenting evidence that you did not cause the fire with the intent to defraud your insurance provider.

This defense is significant in situations where the fire is not conclusively ruled as arson or where the evidence points to another cause of the fire. 

False Accusation

Cases of false accusations are common.  A witness gives false testimony due to jealousy, anger, or payback. During cross-examination, your attorney will question the witness. If their testimony is not supported by any evidence, the false accusation defense is a viable option.

No Probable Cause

Police officers must have probable cause to detain a crime suspect. This is a fourth amendment right.

The no probable cause defense is more applicable in reckless arson cases. If you were arrested without probable cause, any evidence obtained post-detainment or arrest could be excluded from your case. An attorney will argue the lack of probable cause. Hence any evidence obtained after an arrest is inadmissible.

This defense could lead to a reduction of your charges, if not a dismissal. 

Plea Bargains in Arson Cases

A significant number of criminal cases end in a plea agreement. Arson cases are no different. Prosecutors may decide to introduce additional charges, especially if their case lacks sufficient evidence to convict you of the primary charge.

A defense attorney will prefer a plea agreement to have the charges reduced and consequently reduce your penalties. You will have to plead guilty to the agreed-upon charges.

Prosecutors could introduce:

  • Murder charges if the victim in the arson case dies
  • Burglary charges for entering a residential or commercial building with the intent to commit a felony or theft
  • Trespass, for entering and remaining in another’ property without permission to do so
  1. Murder

Under PC 187, unlawfully killing another human being or fetus with malice aforethought is a crime. If the killings are premeditated, you will face first-degree murder charges.

First-degree murders also include felony murders, which occur during the commission of a felony, including arson.         

Prosecutors must establish fundamental elements to prove their case:

  • Unlawful killing — Killing under PC 187 is unjustified and illegal.
  • Malice aforethought — Malice can either be express or implied. Express malice refers to intentional killing or engaging in deliberate actions whose consequences are dangerous to human life or acting in conscious disregard to human life.

On the other hand, implied malice relies on actions taken by the defendant that point to conscious disregard for human life.

Under the new felony murder rule, SB 1437, you can only face murder charges if you intentionally killed another individual, were the actual killer, a significant participant in the underlying felony, i.e., arson, or if the victim was an on-duty police officer, firefighter, or peace officer.

If the killings were not planned (pre-meditated) or deliberate, prosecutors would pursue second-degree murder charges.

The felony murder rule also applies in second-degree murder cases.

Penalties for a Murder Conviction

A first-degree murder conviction results in a prison sentence of 25 years to life.

For a conviction for the second-degree murder charge, being found guilty results in a 15 year to life imprisonment. If there are aggravating circumstances in the case, additional penalties will be issued as follows:

  • Life with no possibility of parole if the defendant served a prior conviction for murder
  • 20 years to life if the defendant shot from the vehicle and intended to cause serious injury
  • 25 years to life if the victim was a peace officer
  • Life with no possibility of parole if the victim was a peace officer and the defendant intended to inflict, or inflicted severe bodily harm, or used a deadly weapon to kill the officer.
  1. Burglary

Entering a commercial or residential structure or a locked car to commit petty theft, grand theft, or a felony violates PC 459. 

You can either face first-degree burglary or second-degree burglary charges. Entering a residential structure is a first-degree burglary offense while entering a commercial structure is a second-degree offense.

Penalties for Burglary Offense

First-degree burglary is a felony, and a conviction will result in a:

  • Two, four, or six-year prison sentence or formal probation
  • A fine amounting to $10,000
  • A strike in your record pursuant to California’s Three Strikes Law

Second-degree burglary is punishable by either misdemeanor or felony penalties.

Misdemeanors are punishable by a jail sentence of no more than one year or summary probation. Additionally, the court will impose a fine amounting to $1,000. Felony offenders, on the other hand, will be sent to jail for 16 months, two or three years. Additionally, a fine of up to $10,000 will be imposed.

  1. Trespass

Trespass is a crime under PC 602. The statute details several activities as criminal trespass, including the more common ones:

  • Entering another person’s property to damage their property
  • Entering and occupying another person’s property without their authority
  • Entering another’s property to obstruct or interfere with business operation in the premises

For purposes of the relation to arson, the DA must prove specific elements of the crime for you to be convicted of the crime. 

He/she must be established that:

  • You deliberately entered another person’s property — Deliberate action does not necessarily indicate your intent to break the law. It points to your purposeful action to gain access to another’s property.
  • You intended to interfere with the right’s the property owner enjoys — Intent under this section addresses your conscious decision to act in a manner that affects the owner’s rights on the property. Additionally, it should be proven you intended for the consequences of your actions to occur.
  • By damaging their property or interfering with business operations at the premises, you interfered with the rights the property owner enjoyed — Under PC 602, you are only guilty of trespass for damaging an owner’s property or interfering with business operations if you caused damage to said property or acted in a manner that would disrupt business operations. Causing a fire leads to damage and disrupts business operations.

Penalties for Trespass

Based on the circumstances, the district attorney can pursue trespass as an infraction, misdemeanor, or a felony.

You must have willfully entered another’s land, enclosed by a fence without their permission. The land should also have had  “No trespass” signs erected within intervals of no less than three within a mile.

You will pay a $75 fine for a first offense and $250 for a second offense on the same land if found guilty. A third conviction becomes a misdemeanor offense.

Misdemeanor trespass is punishable by a jail sentence of no more than six months or summary probation. Additionally, you will part with a maximum of $1,000 in fines. 

Felony trespass, also referred to as aggravated trespass, is punishable under PC 601. You are guilty of aggravated trespass when you:

  • Make a credible threat to inflict serious injury to another an action aiming at causing the victim to fear for their safety and that of their family
  • Enter the victim’s property within 30 days to actualize the threat

Under PC 601, aggravated trespass is a wobbler. Prosecutors can either pursue misdemeanor or felony charges informed by the circumstances in your case and your criminal history.

A conviction for a misdemeanor chase results in a one-year jail sentence and a fine not exceeding $2,000. If the charge was pursued as a felony, you could face a 16-month, two, or three-year jail sentence or formal probation instead of jail time.

Additional charges will significantly increase your penalties. It is easy to accept a plea deal offered by prosecutors to reduce these charges. However, take the plea agreement only if your attorney advises you to. Rely on their counsel to make the best decision.

Find a Reputable Chula Vista Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me

If you or a loved one is under investigation for arson, contact our experienced attorneys at Chula Vista Criminal Attorney. We will assess your case and work to fight the charges. Call us today at 619-877-6894 for a free case evaluation.