Did you know that arson is the leading cause of fires in the United States? Statistics show that 33,395 arson cases happened in 2019, resulting in property damage worth billions of dollars. A recent estimated cost of loss per arson was $16,371.
What is arson, and can you get jailed for committing this crime? What are the different types of arson and their penalties?
This article defines arson and provides examples of its types, possible sentences, and fines for this criminal act. This piece also explains how an arson case is considered a misdemeanor or a felony.
Arson convictions are severe cases that shouldn’t be taken lightly. You’ll need the help of a legal expert and a way to gather necessary documents easily. Visit LookUpInmate.org to check for criminal records.
Will You Face Jail Time if You’re Convicted of Arson?
Jail time for arson depends on the gravity of the crime committed and the state law where the arson happened.
Many states have harsh penalties for arson, especially if the defendant uses accelerants or substances that intensify fires. A conviction for intentional arson can result in 1 year to 20 years of imprisonment.
Understanding Arson in the U.S.
Intentional burning of other people’s property is a crime many states do not treat lightly. Arson is a violent crime that may result in high-cost damages. If you’re charged with arson, it’s best to understand this type of property crime.
What Is Arson?
Arson is intentionally or maliciously burning another person’s house or dwelling place. However, the definition of arson may be different in other states. In some jurisdictions, arson is intentionally burning a building or setting fire to a building where people reside.
Is Arson a Felony or a Misdemeanor in the U.S.?
Arson laws have subtle differences in every jurisdiction. Also, there are slight differences in punishment and penalties.
According to most federal and state laws, there are two types of arson charges depending on the severity of the crime: misdemeanor or felony.
You can determine whether the fire caused by an arsonist is serious or not by putting into consideration the following factors:
- The risk of injury
- The type of burned property
- Property damage amount
- The intent of the arsonist
For example, in Utah, arson cases with minimal property damage or damage of $1,500 or less is a misdemeanor and can result in a maximum jail sentence of one year and a fine of up to $2,500.
As a crime, arson can also be determined in degrees. Here are arson types based on their severity:
- First-degree arson: Criminals who intentionally set fire to a structure while people are inside is a first-degree arson offense. A crucial requirement to convict the defendant is evidence showing foreknowledge that the property is occupied and the culprit still set it ablaze.
- Second-degree arson: People who set fire to destroy or damage an unoccupied building during the duration of the fire. An example is setting fire to an office on weekends when no one is inside working.
- Third-degree arson: People setting fire to property that people usually don’t occupy, like parking garages, empty fields, or lots.
When Is Arson a Federal Crime?
Arson becomes a federal crime when done on federal property or a federally owned building. According to the law, federal property is any piece of land or building leased or real property owned or occupied by any United States department or agency.
What Is the Lowest Degree of Arson?
A crime’s severity is often indicated by degrees in most states. The first degree is the highest and most serious crime, while the next is lesser.
In some states, the lowest degree of arson is a third-degree charge where an arsonist sets an area or property on fire with no one present. However, arson becomes aggravated when the offender is fully aware and intends to burn property while people are still inside.
What Are the Penalties for Arson?
Arson penalties depend on the extent of the damage and the type of property destroyed by the fire. Also, the number of people harmed by the fire is another factor that aggravates the crime and can result in severe punishment.
Usually, severe arson cases will result in prison time in either a federal or state prison. However, the judge can place fines that the defendant must pay for restitution on top of an imprisonment term.
Restitution is the obligation of the defendant to compensate the victim or owner of the properties damaged by the arson attack. Furthermore, the judge can add to the defendant’s restitution bill the expenses incurred by the fire department when they battled the fire.
Type of Property
In an arson case, the type of property is a factor that can influence the severity of the punishment. The property type can mean the difference between a misdemeanor or a full-blown felony charge.
Here are two main types of properties that can be involved in the crime of arson:
- Real property: These properties are people’s homes, dwelling places, or any occupied building. Depending on the state, committing arson on these properties can mean a prison sentence of 20 years or more.
However, it doesn’t mean that committing arson on an unoccupied building won’t result in a felony offense. Burning state forest land, government buildings, or a building of religious importance may also result in a felony conviction.
- Personal property: Houses and land are not the only things you can call property. Personal properties include clothing, a car, and anything you own.
Destruction of these properties due to arson can also add weight to the offense. The court determines the penalties for destroying personal property by the value of the damaged or destroyed items.
However, burning personal property like a vehicle or a building with occupants can result in harsher penalties.
Another factor that can determine whether a person becomes liable for arson or not is if there’s an intent to commit the crime. Premeditation or doing something with intent is a crucial factor that can tip the balance towards getting convicted of a felony.
Moreover, arson can be aggravated if the defendant targets people precisely because of their beliefs, ethnicity, or a person under a protected class.
The protected class is a group of people protected due to their rampant experience of discrimination. Usually, people included in this class are minorities, people with disabilities, women, and children.
Extent of Damage
Arson cases may also be classified by the extent of the damage caused by the fire. For example, an arsonist’s action destroyed an estimated $500 or less of property damage.
The courts may charge the defendant with a misdemeanor. However, if the damage rises to more than $100,000, it can result in jail time.
Arson that results in bodily harm to another person will most likely get a felony arson conviction. The penalty is typically based on the severity of the victim’s injuries or the number of victims affected by the arson attack.
Also, suppose a first responder, like a firefighter suffers bodily injury while battling a fire caused by an arsonist. In that case, the state can impose felony penalties on the perpetrator.
What Other Consequences Can You Face?
Aside from fines and possible jail time, an arsonist can quickly fall into a financial bind. Fines and penalties may add up to seriously high levels that the defendant can get overwhelmed by the restitution amount.
What Is the Sentence for Arson in the U.S.?
In the United States, sentences for arson convictions depend on whether its a state crime or a federal offense. For state crimes, the penalties depend on the state law and its prescribed sanctions, prison time, and penalties for arson types.
However, for federal offenses, it’s a different matter. Here’s a list of sentences for federal arson cases in the U.S. The following penalties are according to federal statute 18 U.S.C. § 844(i).
- Minimum sentence: A conviction of federal arson can result in incarceration from 5 years to 20 years.
- Maximum sentence: The minimum penalty is seven years imprisonment if the arson caused injuries and includes a responding public safety officer. The maximum sentence, in this case, is 40 years behind bars.
Is Arson a Death Sentence?
If the arson results in the death of anyone, including a responding public safety officer, the defendant may face a life sentence or the death penalty if the crime is severe. Ultimately, the judge will have discretion in sentencing the defendant.
Proving Arson: Elements of the Offense
The prosecutor must prove that the defendant intentionally, purposefully, or recklessly caused the fire. Also, the prosecutor must show concrete evidence that the injuries of victims and the subsequent property damage are linked to the fire caused by the defendant.
Intentional, Purposeful, or Reckless Acts
A charge of arson depends on the intent of the defendant. A prosecutor must prove intent to secure a conviction.
Suppose the defendant manages to find proof that the fire incident was accidental. In that case, it won’t be arson unless the prosecutor is able to argue that the defendant’s recklessness caused the resulting fire.
- Proving intent: A prosecutor must provide this element when seeking a conviction. However, proving intent doesn’t mean showing what’s happening inside the perpetrator’s mind when committing the arson. One way to prove intent is through circumstantial evidence pointing out a likely scenario in which the defendant intentionally caused the fire.
- Recklessness: Some states punish a person’s recklessness resulting in a fire with an arson conviction, especially if it caused considerable property damage. Recklessness can be determined by proving that the defendant is fully aware that their actions could cause a fire but still did it. The state may charge the defendant with a lesser arson degree, like reckless burning.
- Fire or explosion: Some states include causing damage due to an explosion under the arson law. However, some states treat property damage due to explosions as a separate crime.
Harm to Property
Suppose the prosecutor can prove that a defendant’s action damaged another person’s property, even slightly. In that case, the defendant can be convicted of arson. In some states, proof of damage is unnecessary if the intent to damage another individual’s property is well established.
Is It Arson if You Set Fire to Property You Own?
Setting fire to your property for fraudulent purposes or if the fire spreads and damages other people’s property can result in an arson charge. Suppose a person burns their house or business to get insurance. In that case, it’s insurance fraud and can be a different crime besides arson.
Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Arson
U.S. courts refer to sentencing guidelines for recommendations for different crimes, including arson. These protocols advise increased sentences if the defendant caused substantial harm to another person or if the arson was to cover up a crime by destroying evidence.
The courts have adhered to these guidelines such that half of all arson sentences were within the recommended sentencing guidelines. Over one-third were below the range, and 10% exceeded the recommended sentence length indicated in the guidelines.
What Is Considered Attempted Arson?
Whenever you see the word “attempted” alongside the name of a crime, it means that the offender intended to carry out a criminal act but eventually failed. However, because the intent to harm is present, the offender can still face three potential charges, in this case, related to arson.
There are three potential charges for a failed arson attempt:
- Attempted arson
- Attempted reckless arson
- Attempted aggravated arson
A conviction occurs if there’s proof that the defendant attempted to ignite the fire that destroyed other people’s properties and endangered lives.
Defenses to Arson
If you’re faced with an arson charge, there are different ways to defend yourself from incrimination. However, you can only build a solid defense if you have the services of a competent criminal defense attorney.
Law firms specializing in criminal law have experts like arson defense attorneys who can help you in an arson case. According to experts, in this case, you can build a defense if you can gather evidence to prove that the fire was caused by accident or it was due to intoxication.
An accident is a typical defense against arson. When the word accident is used, it automatically shows the lack of intent to commit a crime. However, if the evidence showed that the defendant’s recklessness caused the fire, the accident defense won’t work.
Unless you have solid evidence that you’re innocent, citing that the incident is an accident is hard to pull off. Prosecutors usually get statements from arson experts who can determine the cause of the fire and the substances or accelerants used to fan the flame. Experts can quickly determine if the fire was intentionally lit or not.
In some cases, a defendant in an arson case can cite intoxication as a defense. If you’re in this situation, you can cite being drunk as a defense to prove that you didn’t intend to start the fire. However, this defense type may apply to states with a specific intent statute.
Defenses Against Willful Arson Charges in the U.S.
Aside from the defenses stated above, other defenses for willful arson charges are maintaining no intent to harm anyone or claiming that you didn’t intend to start the fire, or you’re falsely accused of starting one.
It’s best to ask a criminal defense lawyer to help you prepare your defense against an arson charge.
How Can You Avoid an Arson Conviction?
A straightforward answer to this question is to avoid getting entangled with arson situations in the first place. Arson is a common crime in the United States, and an excellent attorney-client relationship is crucial to get out of this predicament with flying colors.
About the Data
The United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) monitors and tracks the sentencing of all federal courts. According to the data collated by the USSC, arson defendants are often charged with additional crimes. The following sections show the data about federal sentencing statistics in the United States.
Federal Sentencing Statistics by Jurisdiction
Furthermore, the average sentence length for federal arson cases is 35 years. For example, Maryland has a maximum sentence length of 420 months or 35 years for arson cases.
Most Federal Arson Convictions Result in Prison Time
Arson, whether a state or federal offense, is a serious charge. Congress sets the federal minimum for this criminal charge at five years in federal prison. People convicted of arson may get prison time plus confinement conditions, parole, or an early release program with specific conditions.
Most Defendants Plead Guilty to Arson in Federal Court
Most defendants in federal arson cases plead guilty. In 2019, out of 68 sentences issued by federal courts, 58 came from a guilty plea. Note that conviction in a jury trial usually receives a higher sentence than those who admitted to guilt.
How Criminal History Affects Sentencing for Arson
One’s criminal history can greatly affect the outcome of an arson charge. First-time offenders usually get away with a two-year or less prison time than repeat offenders. Typically, regardless of the crime, defendants with prior convictions may result in an increased sentence.
You can get information about criminal history through sites like LookUpInmate.org. This website gives access to criminal records from the more than 7,000 correctional facilities in the country.
How Education Can Affect Sentencing for Arson
Statistics may show a correlation between education attainment and sentence length in federal courts. Usually, educational level shows the circumstances of a crime. In the case of arson, defendants with higher education may indicate that the crime may have other motives, like insurance fraud.
Race and Sentence Length
Black and white defendants are among the largest racial group with arson convictions in federal courts. Though other groups are listed with arson cases, the two mentioned racial groups represent most arson convictions in federal courts.
Sentencing by Age Group and Gender
Statistics show that for any group or gender, men composed the majority of arson convictions compared to women. The federal courts sentenced 15 males aged 41 to 50 in 2019.
Talk to an Attorney
An arson charge is not a simple case. It’s a complicated case to defend, and you’ll need a competent arson defense lawyer to have a winning chance. Always seek legal advice on how to defend yourself. Some law firms offer free consultations for their clients, so take advantage of their offers.
1. UNITED STATES BOMB DATA CENTER (USBDC) ARSON INCIDENT REPORT
3. Arson Charges and Penalties