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What is the Law on Arson in California and what are the Punishments for it?

The State of California has many camping grounds, national parks and a huge forest cover surrounding rural areas. Consequently, it is a State that is very vulnerable to forest fires and Arson laws also serve as a safeguard against man-induced fires that may intend to harm a particular property but may very well pose a serious risk of fire to an entire community, town or even a County.

Casual behavior of a floating population, as well as residents, may also lead to unintentional and yet highly dangerous fires. In California, Arson also emerges as the felony of choice by perpetrators for a range of motivations like insurance fraud, revenge or even the sheer thrill of causing destruction.

Sections 451 and 452 of the California Penal Code (CPC) recognize Arson identify two types of the said offense. In order to gain a better understanding of the aforesaid laws, a simplified summary of the mentioned Sections is given below:

1. Malicious Arson - Section 451 of CPC distinguishes malicious arson as the willful and malicious act of setting fire to or burning a structure, forest land or property. Herein:
  • The term structure includes building, tunnels, bridges, power plants, and commercial/public tents.
  • “Forest land” refers to any forest, grassland, woods, brush-covered land or cut-over land.
  • The term property includes any kind of personal property i.e. vehicle, boat, furniture, clothing or land other than forest land. Such personal property must not be owned by the offender unless it is burnt with the intent to defraud someone or the intent to injure another person and their property.
  • The term willful represents intent and the term malicious represents awareness towards the wrongful nature of the act and the high probability of its damaging consequences.
California Arson Law

The various penalties for malicious arson, with or without a penalty of up to $50,000 or twice the amount of actual/anticipated financial gain from the fire, are:

  • 16 months, 2 years or 3 years for burning personal property.
  • 2 years, 4 years or 6 years for burning structure or forest land.
  • 3 years, 5 years or 8 years if the targeted structure was inhabited.
  • 5 years, 7 years or 9 years if the offense causes great bodily injury.
2. Reckless Arson- Section 452 of CPC distinguishes reckless arson as the reckless act of setting fire to or burning a structure, forest land or property. Herein:
  1. The terms structure, forest land, and property bear the same meaning as mentioned above.
  • The term reckless represents A person’s ignorance towards one’s own awareness that the act bears a substantial and unjustifiable risk of resulting in a hazardous fire. This awareness absolves the defendant from seeking accidental fire as a defense.
  • A person completely disregards prescribed safety norms and reasonable common sense and such negligence results in imminent danger of a hazardous fire. Certain examples of this disregard include throwing a burning article such as cigarette or light in a dry bush or lighting a fire close to flammable materials.
Arson Law

The various penalties for reckless arson are:

1. Misdemeanor charges with a conviction of prison term in a county jail bearing a sentence of:
  • Up to 6 months for burning a structure or a forest land else up to 1 year if the fire causes bodily injury.
  • 1 year if the burnt structure or property is inhabited.
2. Felony charged with a conviction of prison term in a state prison bearing a sentence of:
  • 16 months, 2 years or 3 years for burning of a structure or forest land else 2 years, 4 years or 6 years if the fire causes bodily injury.
  • 2 years, 3 years or 4 years if the burnt structure or property is inhabited.
3. Aggravated Arson: Section 451.5 further elaborates on a serious form of arson bearing enhanced penalties and sentences, notifying it as Aggravated Arson, subject to the following conditions:
  • The offender has a previous felony conviction under CPC Sections 451/452 for malicious and/or reckless arson.
  • The offender uses a device to accelerate or delay the ignition which causes the fire.
  • The fire burns multiple structures.
  • The fire causes great bodily injury to:
  1. More than 1 person.
  2. An officer, firefighter or other emergency personnel.
Arson Law California

Aggravated Arson results in a consecutive conviction of 1-5 years in a State prison in addition to the prison term of the Arson conviction and a graver sentence owing to stipulated “aggravated factors” as notified by law.

It is pertinent to note that under CPC, Sections 453 and 455 explicitly identify preparation for arson and attempt to commit arson as offenses too. Additionally, California also has a registry for those with prior arson convictions as per the provisions of Section 457.1.


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