California's dry climate is naturally prone to dangerous, massive wildfires. This is why the state takes arson charges very seriously, performing thorough investigations of fires to discover the causes and enforcing strict penalties for convicted arsonists, including a state arson offender registration to keep tabs on particularly dangerous offenders. The intent of the person who started the fire is one of the most important factors when it comes to whether reckless arson in California is a felony or a misdemeanor, whereas the amount of damage will most dramatically affect the sentence of someone facing felony willful or malicious arson charges.
California Arson Laws: Reckless Burning
Reckless burning, also called reckless arson, is the least serious of all California arson laws. That's because these charges are applied to those who did not intend to cause a fire, or who intentionally started a fire on their own property and did not intend for it to spread beyond their property. Not all fires that have been started accidentally are subject to reckless burning laws. Instead, the person who started the fire must have acted recklessly, meaning he knew or should have known that his actions could cause a fire.
For example, if someone has a controlled bonfire in her backyard and a heavy gust of wind causes a dead tree to fall into the fire pit, causing the fire to spread to a nearby field, she would not be guilty of reckless burning. This is because she had no way to know that the wind would have blown that tree into her fire pit. On the other hand, if someone throws a still-burning cigarette butt out of a car window into dry brush after just passing by a sign warning about a high risk of wildfires in the area, he should have known that his cigarette could cause a fire and thus could be found guilty of reckless burning.
Reckless burning is usually a misdemeanor in California, punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of $1,000. If the fire involved a structure or forest land, or it resulted in great bodily injury, the crime becomes a "wobbler," meaning it can be charged as a felony or a misdemeanor. Misdemeanors in these cases are punishable by up to one year in jail, and felonies for setting fire to a structure or forest land can carry a sentence of two, three, four or six years in prison. If the fire resulted in great bodily injury and is charged as a felony, it doesn't matter if it was reckless burning or malicious or willful arson, the penalties are the same.
Malicious or Willful Arson
What most people think of when they imagine arson is known as malicious or willful arson under California law. That is the malicious or willful act of starting a fire, meaning it was either started with the malicious intent to defraud, annoy or injure someone or it was started on purpose. If the prosecutor cannot prove that the fire was either malicious or willful, then the charges will usually be filed as reckless burning.
Willful or malicious arson charges are always a felony and will result in a strike on a person's record under the state's three strikes law. These charges are punishable by a fine of up to $10,000, plus up to $50,000 in additional fines – and even more fines if the fire was started for the purpose of financial gain. The period of incarceration in prison will vary based on the circumstances, specifically:
- Malicious or willful arson of personal property: 16 months, two years or three years.
- Malicious or willful arson of a structure or forest land: two, four or six years.
- Malicious or willful arson of an inhabited structure or property: three, five or eight years.
- Any form of arson that results in bodily injury: five, seven or nine years.
Aggravated Arson Charges
There are some circumstances where arson can result in even more lengthy prison terms, and these are known as aggravating factors. The first aggravating circumstance can result in an additional one to five years in prison, this occurs when:
- The defendant has a prior felony conviction for arson.
- The fire resulted in at least two people suffering great bodily injury.
- A police officer, firefighter or EMT suffered great bodily injury as a result of the fire.
- The fire caused damaged to at least two structures.
- A device was used to accelerate the fire or delay its ignition.
Some limited circumstances are even more serious in arson cases, and these can result in an additional 10 years to life being added to the arson sentence:
- A church, synagogue, mosque or other place of worship was set on fire.
- The fire was started for the purpose of retaliating against a landlord or a person the defendant believed to be the structure's owner.
- The defendant has a prior arson conviction from the last 10 years.
- Five or more inhabited structures were damaged.
- The total value of property damaged by the fire was valued at $6.5 million or more.
California Arson Registration Laws
In addition to fines, prison time and a strike on the arsonist's record, those convicted of certain arson crimes will also be required to register as a convicted arsonist, in a program similar to the state sex offender registry. This means that as long as these people reside in California they are required to regularly check in with local law enforcement and notify law enforcement whenever they move. Convicted arsonists may be removed from the registry if they obtain a certificate of rehabilitation.
Not all arsonists are subject to this registry requirement, only those who were convicted of willful, malicious or aggravated arson and who received a sentence of 10 years or more in prison, or those who used a combustible or flammable material to start, accelerate or spread the fire.
Important Information in Arson Cases
Whether it comes to reckless burning, malicious, willful or aggravated arson, there are some important things to know. First, it is legal to burn your own property as long as the fire does not spread, and the blaze was not started with malicious intent, such as insurance fraud or to hide evidence of a crime, for example. Second, when even a small portion of a property has been burned, arson charges can still be brought, so a property or structure does not need to be destroyed, but simply set on fire in some part.
Finally, the definitions of structure, property and forest land are important to know in regard to arson laws. A structure is not limited to just buildings; it can also include bridges, tunnels, tents and more. Similarly, property includes any kind of personal property not considered to be forest land or a structure, including clothing, furniture or farm land. Forest land is a little more vague, but can include any type of natural land, including brush-covered and forested land, and grasslands.
- Greg Hill Associates: What Does it Mean to Be a Registered Arson Offender?
- Legislative Info: AB-27 Arson: Aggravated: Punishment
- Robert M. Helfend: California Arson Laws – What You Need to Know
- Criminal Defense Attorney San Diego: The Basics of Arson Charges in California
- Eisner Gorin Attorneys: Arson Laws in California – Penal Code Section 451 and 452
- Kann California Defense Group: California Arson Attorneys
- Aizman Law: This Is What You Should Know About California Arson Laws