Defending Against Arson Charges in the State of California

Criminal arson charges are a serious matter in the state of California. If you have been charged with arson, it is important that you contact an experienced California criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. The state’s prosecutor will be working to prove every element of the charges against you, and, depending on the specific charges, a lengthy prison term will result from conviction. The purpose of this article is to explain the elements of a criminal arson charge in the state of California.

California PC 451 and PC 452 Criminalize Arson in California

The laws that define arson in the state of California are PC 451 and PC 452. These laws make it a crime to set fire to any building, forest, land, or property, whether recklessly or with a willful and malicious intent. The latter part of the legal definition of arson requires some explaining.  Recklessness, in the eyes of the law, deserves less culpability than willfulness and maliciousness. In other words, reckless behavior is not necessarily intentional behavior; it may simply involve poor judgment or overly risky behavior.

California Penal Code 452 is even more specific about what recklessness means. Under the law, to act recklessly is to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk, to ignore that risk, and for that to be a serious departure from the way in which a reasonable person would act in the same situation. Importantly, this type of unreasonable risk analysis goes above and beyond mere carelessness. In other words, recklessness is worse than the kind of carelessness that causes an accident. If the state believes a fire to have been caused by recklessness, the specific criminal charge may be “reckless burning” or “reckless arson.”

The most basic form of either charge is classified as a misdemeanor. The exact penalties stemming from conviction depend on the damage caused by the fire. The court looks at whether it was a structure or natural area that was burned and whether any people were hurt. Fires of inhabited structures that resulted in great bodily injury or death are punished the most severely, with there being the possibility of a six-year prison sentence.

Willful and Malicious Arson

The difference between willful and malicious arson and reckless arson is state of mind.  Whereas reckless arson may be the result of a gross lapse of judgment, willful and malicious arson represents an intentionally wrongful act. Willful simply means intentional or purposeful – that you intended to set the fire. Malicious means you intended to commit a wrongful act, or possessed an unlawful intent. It is this kind of “guilty mind” that serves as the state’s basis for punishing willful and malicious arson even more severely than reckless arson. If you have been charged with either form of arson, it is imperative that you contact a skilled and experienced California criminal defense attorney immediately.