Defending Against Arson Charges in California

Arson is punished harshly in California. One reason for this is because arson is capable of creating state-declared emergencies. This is especially the case in a span of drought-ridden years when even a small spark can spiral into out-of-control blazes, endangering both the state’s natural resources and the lives of firefighters who bear the responsibility of combating wildfires. If you have been charged with arson in the state of California, you need a skilled and experienced criminal defense attorney to protect your legal rights and mount the strongest possible defense against the state’s efforts to convict you. The purpose of this article is to explain the crime of arson and punishments for conviction.

There are Two Arson Laws in the State of California

In California, there are two laws against arson. The reason for this is the belief that different mental states contributing to the commission of a crime deserve different levels of punishment. Sometimes, when a crime is committed, a person specifically intends to commit the crime. Other times, however, a crime is committed as the result of recklessness or carelessness.

Here it is helpful to think of a car crash. A crash could occur if a driver, consumed with road rage, intentionally drives his or her vehicle into another vehicle in an effort to send the other vehicle dangerously careening off the road. This scenario describes an intentional act. If, on the other hand, a driver is speeding – simply hoping to arrive at his or her destination as fast as possible – and accidentally loses control and crashes into another driver’s vehicle, the same result – sending the other vehicle dangerously careening off the road – might occur. In the second scenario, however, the mental state is different. In that scenario there is no intent to cause harm. Rather, the accident is the product of recklessness.  

California factors in mental state when punishing crimes. Intentionally wrongful conduct is typically punished more severely than reckless or careless conduct. California makes the same distinction with regard to arson. California Penal Code 451 criminalizes “willfully or maliciously” setting fire to a building, land, or other property. “Willfully” and “maliciously” are words that speak to intentional bad conduct. California Penal Code 452, on the other hand, speaks to the less culpable conduct of recklessness; it criminalizing the “unlawful causation of a fire” – also termed “reckless burning” or “reckless arson.” Conviction under California Penal Code 451 will result in more serious penalties than California Penal Code 452 because of the more culpable mental state.

What to Do if You Have Been Charged With Either Type of Arson in California

Depending on the damage done to persons, property, and forest land, prison sentences under California Penal Code 451 range from 16 months to nine years. In addition, fines in the tens of thousands of dollars are possible. With such serious penalties becoming realities upon conviction, it is clear that you urgently require the services of an experienced California criminal defense attorney if you have been charged with arson.