What is Arson Law?
Arson law deals with the criminal burning of homes, businesses, and other property. The crime of arson predates the American justice system, although legislators continue to modify the elements of the offense, expanding on the types of conduct that will qualify as arson. Laws prohibiting arson have been enacted by the federal government and in all 50 states. Penalties for convicted arsonists vary in every jurisdiction, and generally become more severe based upon the degree to which the fire puts human life at risk.
Common Law Elements of the Crime
Prior to the development of comprehensive penal codes, crimes such as arson were defined by the courts. Judges were bound by the precedents set in previous cases, and through time, this common law system created specific elements that must be met for a defendant to be convicted. These elements would be applied to the facts of a particular case to determine guilt or innocence. The common law elements of arson are still relevant today, as they form the basis for the statutes in each U.S. jurisdiction.
At common law, arson was defined as the malicious burning of another person's dwelling. This definition can be broken down into four elements. The first element of maliciousness required that the defendant acted willfully and with wrongful intent. Thus, starting a fire by accident was not sufficient. The next element required the defendant's actions to produce a burning. A burning could include even the slightest damage caused by charring, but merely causing smoke discoloration to a home was insufficient.
To be convicted of common law arson, the property burned must also have belonged to another person. Setting fire to one's own home could not be punished as arson, although it could qualify as any number of less serious offenses. Finally, common law arson required the burned property to be a dwelling. A dwelling is a structure where people live, regardless of whether it is occupied at the time of the fire. Overall, the fact that arson was defined so narrowly at common law reflects an effort by the courts to reserve this crime for only the most serious situations.
Modern Arson Statutes
The offense of arson is now defined by statute. While the essential nature and seriousness of the crime remains unchanged, the elements have been expanded in recent years. For example, the technical provisions requiring that the defendant cause a burning have been relaxed. Using an explosion to damage property now qualifies as arson in most jurisdictions, as well as "starting a fire" (even if the property fails to burn) and "causing a fire" (through indirect conduct).
Many arson statutes extend the crime to include the burning of one's own home, at least in cases involving fraud, or where setting the fire posed a foreseeable risk to other people or their property. The common law element concerning a dwelling has been expanded as well. Prosecutors can now charge a suspect with arson for burning any type of residential, commercial, or industrial structure. The burning of vehicles and forest land may also qualify.
Those who knowingly burn structures in which people are present can be prosecuted under special statutes carrying enhanced penalties. Classified as arson in the first degree, this offense can include a maximum sentence of life in prison. Enhanced sentences can also be imposed for arson that causes injury, and for repeat offenders. Criminal liability can even arise for those who do not set a fire personally. Modern arson statutes often contain "aiding and abetting" provisions making them directly applicable to individuals who assist in the commission of the crime.
Arson and Insurance Fraud
Arson and suspected arson are the greatest contributing causes of fire-related property damage in the United States. A variety of motives lead people to commit arson, such as revenge, thrill-seeking, and the need to destroy evidence of other crimes. However, a significant portion of arson fires come about as part of an insurance fraud, and law enforcement is always on the alert for these schemes. Insurance companies have teams of investigators dedicated to uncovering these crimes as well.
People who burn their own property (or hire others to do it) are looking for relief from loans they cannot afford. They set fire to the collateral in hopes of collecting the insurance proceeds, paying off the loan, and keeping the money that is left over. This can be especially enticing when the value of the property has dropped far below the level of insurance coverage due to real estate market conditions, natural disasters, and other factors. To deter such activities, the penalties are severe. It is not unheard of for a defendant with no prior criminal history to spend a decade or more in federal prison following a conviction for insurance fraud arson.
Consult with a Defense Attorney
If you are being investigated for arson, or if criminal charges have already been filed, anything you say to the police or your insurance company can be used against you. This is no time to make mistakes. Schedule a consultation with a defense attorney to ensure your rights are protected.