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California Arson Laws

Posted in Criminal Defense on August 12, 2019

Arson laws for the state of California are covered under Penal Code 451 and 452. California law covers various arson-related crimes.

  • California Penal Code 451 refers to malicious arson.
  • California Penal Code 452 describes crimes in which a person unlawfully causing a fire due to reckless behavior.

When discussing the differences between Penal Code 451 and Penal Code 452, the defendant’s state of mind at the time the crime committed will be examined.

California Penal Code 451: Malicious Arson

For arson laws to apply, the following facts (or elements) of the case must apply:

  • A person acted willfully and maliciously
  • A person set fire to a building, forest land, or other property

Prosecution must prove both of these facts in order for the arson law to apply. Under this law, a person could be found to act willfully if you commit the act on purpose. A person acts maliciously if they commit a wrongful act with the intent to defraud, annoy, or injure someone else.

Penalties & Punishments for Malicious Arson:

Penalties for committing malicious arson are always felony offenses. The potential punishments include:

  • 16 months, 2 years, or three years for malicious arson of personal property
  • 2, 4, or 6 years for malicious arson of forest land or structure
  • 3, 5, or 8 years for malicious arson that causes an inhabited structure or property to burn
  • 5, 7, or 9 years for arson that causes great bodily harm.

All forms of malicious arson can carry a fine of up to $10,000.

California Penal Code 451: Reckless Burning

For this law to apply, the following fact (or elements) of the case must apply:

  • A person acted recklessly
  • A person set fire to a building, forest land, or property

Here, recklessly is defined as:

  • A person was aware their actions presented a substantial and unjustifiable risk of starting a fire
  • The person ignored that risk
  • Doing so is a “gross deviation” of how a reasonable person would act in a similar situation

“Reckless” in this circumstance is a high standard to be met and is not the same as negligent or careless.

Penalties & Punishments for Reckless Burning

Penalties for reckless burning vary depending on the circumstances of the crime. Basic reckless burning is considered a misdemeanor with penalties of up to 6 months in county jail and fines of up to $1,000.

Reckless burning can also be a “wobbler,” a crime that could be a misdemeanor or felony, if the property burned is a structure fire, forest land, or if it causes great bodily harm. In this case, there are various penalties:

  • Reckless burning of structure or forest land
    • 6 months county jail (misdemeanor)
    • 16 months, 2 or 3 years state prison (felony)
  • Reckless burning of an inhabited structure or property
    • 1 year county jail (misdemeanor)
    • 2, 3, or 4 years state prison (felony)
  • Reckless burning that causes great bodily harm
    • 1 year county jail (misdemeanor)
    • 2, 4, or 6 years state prison (felony)

Aggravated arson cases

A person could also face enhanced penalties for aggravated arson cases if:

  • They have a prior Penal Code 451 or 452 conviction
  • A public safety official suffers great bodily harm due to the fire
  • More than one person suffers great bodily harm
  • A person causes more than one structure to burn
  • A device was used to accelerate or delay ignition of the fire

Enhances penalties could also apply if a fire was set in retaliation to a person who owned the property or if a fire was set knowingly to a place of worship. If you were accused of arson, don’t hesitate to call an experienced Riverside Criminal Defense Attorney.