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When Can I Be Charged With Arson in California?

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san jose criminal defense lawyerIn a state with a history of destructive forest fires that threaten both pristine wilderness and urban areas, California takes arson very seriously. But there is a great difference between intentionally setting a building or forest ablaze and having a fire on your property that unexpectedly gets out of control. California’s penal code does distinguish between various levels of arson, and the penalties you face are determined by which specific criminal charges are brought.

Malicious Arson Versus Reckless Burning

Under California law, you are guilty of arson if you willfully and maliciously burn your property, someone else’s property, or help someone to do so, including houses, buildings, cars, land, and other smaller possessions. The two main counts related to arson are reckless burning and malicious arson. Malicious arson is a felony, while reckless burning may be either a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on what was burnt. The difference between malicious arson and reckless burning is intent.

If you maliciously and willfully started a fire, including to damage someone’s property, hurt or kill someone, or to commit insurance fraud, you can be charged with malicious arson. This can include setting fires on public land. Prison time depends on the details of the case:

  • If the fire was set on your property, but someone else’s property caught fire too – 16 months – 3 years

  • If you set fire to a non-inhabited building or property – 2-6 years

  • If you set fire to an inhabited building – 3-8 years

  • If an individual suffers great bodily harm from the fire– 7-9 years

Fines typically range from $10,000 - $50,000, but if the arson was part of attempted insurance fraud, you may be fined twice the expected insurance payout. Enhanced malicious arson charges are possible if you have previously been convicted of arson, a first responder was injured or killed, three or more people suffered great bodily injuries, the fire affected multiple structures, or an accelerant or timer was used when setting the fire. Enhanced charges can add another 1-5 years of jail time.

If you started a fire to your own personal property with no intent to defraud or if you just set a fire for amusement or thrill, you would be charged with reckless burning. This can include shooting off fireworks or burning trash or other material on your property that causes a fire. 

If the reckless burning only destroyed personal property, you are likely facing a misdemeanor with a fine of up to $1,000 and a maximum of 6 months of jail time. When forested land or a building is burnt, the charges may be upgraded to felony reckless burning. Again, the prison time depends on the details of the case:

  • If the fire burns non-inhabited property – Six months – 3 years

  • If the fire burns inhabited buildings – 1-4 years

  • If an individual suffered great bodily harm – 1-6 years

The same enhanced charges from malicious arson can be added if the reckless burning is charged as a felony.

Contact a San Jose Arson and Reckless Burning Defense Attorney

Malicious arson and reckless burning are serious charges, and you need a lawyer who can help put up a strong defense and get the misdemeanor or felony charges against you reduced or dismissed. Contact a Santa Clara County criminal defense lawyer at the Fuller Law Firm to begin your defense today. Call our office at 408-234-7563 for a free consultation.



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