Because the crime is highly destructive and frequently deadly, arson is considered one of the most serious of crimes. In California, arson is defined as the “willful and malicious burning of property.” The devastation caused by California wildfires over the past several fire seasons has motivated lawmakers to stiffen the penalties for arson.
California law enforcement agencies and prosecutors do not demonstrate leniency when bringing an alleged arsonist to trial. If you face one or more charges of arson, you should act with a sense of urgency by contacting a California-licensed criminal defense lawyer who has successfully defended clients against arson charges.
What Happens During an Arson Investigation?
Arson can be one of the most difficult types of crimes to prosecute. An arson investigation typically takes several weeks, if not months to conclude. Elite criminal investigators deploy the most advanced chemical analysis technology to locate the origin and cause of a fire. Once criminal investigators agree on a cause and the origin of a fire, they then try to link one or more suspects to setting the fire. Forensics plays a huge role in an arson investigation, especially for wildfires. Witnesses also play an important role in an arson investigation.
What Constitutes Arson in California?
California Penal Code Section 451 states that “A person is guilty of arson when he or she willfully and maliciously sets fire to or burns or causes to be burned or who aids, counsels, or procures the burning of, any structure, forest land, or property.” The following factors determine the severity of an arson charge in California.
- Arson caused “great bodily injury”
- Arson committed on an inhabited structure
- Arson on forest land
- Committing arson for insurance fraud purposes
- Attempted arson
According to California’s Three Strikes Law, a felony arson conviction is considered one strike. Having a felony strike on your record can negatively impact your future.
What Does Arson Sentencing Enhancements Mean?
Although California imposes strict penalties for individuals that are convicted of felony arson charges, the state also has sentence enhancements that depend on one or more circumstances.
- Defendant previously convicted of arson
- A fire caused substantial bodily harm to emergency personnel
- More than one victim suffered great bodily harm
- Multiple structures burned during a fire
Under California Penal Code 451.5, a defendant can be charged with aggravated arson if the defendant has at least one arson conviction over the prior 10 years, the fire caused at least $5,560,000 worth of property damage, or at least five structures received some type of damage. A defendant convicted of an aggravated arson charge can face between 10 years and life in prison without the chance for parole.
How Does a Criminal Defense Lawyer Defend Against an Arson Charge?
As with other types of criminal cases, the prosecution must prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Poking holes in the testimony provided by one or more witnesses is an effective way to plant the seed of doubt in the mind of at least one juror. The prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed arson willfully. Playing around with matches or leaving a campfire unattended is not considered willfully committing the crime of arson. The prosecution also has to prove the defendant committed arson with malice.
If you face a criminal charge of arson or aggravated arson, you should contact a California criminal defense attorney who has established a record of successfully defending clients. Your lawyer can help you gather and organize the evidence you need to plant the seed of doubt, as well as prepare each witness for your defense before they take the stand to testify under oath.
Schedule a free case evaluation with the Chambers Law Firm by calling 714-760-4088.