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California’s arson laws state that it is a crime to set fire to any building, forest land or property either by willfully and maliciously or recklessly.

  • Intentionally means you purposefully set fire to the property or intended that your actions lead to property damage. Keep in mind, a prosecutor does not necessarily need to show what you specifically intended to do when you started the fire or burned the property, so you can be convicted of arson if the prosecutor can show that the circumstances show you intended to burn the property even if you say you didn’t.
  • Recklessness means you act knowing that what you are doing is dangerous and could result in fire or property damage but you still do it anyways. It’s very important to understand that you can be charged with arson even if you did not directly set fire to property. For example, if you drop a lit match in a dry area on your property and cause a wildfire which then damages someone else’s home, you have committed arson.

Another very important thing to understand is that even while most arson crimes involve others’ property, you can be convicted of arson if you set fire to your own property. The key factor in this is if it was intended for fraudulent purposes or if the fire lead to someone else’s property getting damaged. Sentences for arson charges vary greatly and depends on factors like: whether you are convicted of malicious or reckless arson, the nature of the property that you burned, whether any people were injured, and your criminal history.

The potential prison term for malicious arson could be 16 months to 3 years and a fine of up to $10,000. You can also face additional fines of $50,000 or twice the amount of your actual anticipated gain if the prosecutor can prove you committed arson for financial fraud. A malicious arson conviction is a “strike” on your criminal record under California’s Three Strikes Law. Because of this your attorney may fight to get it reduced to reckless arson.

Reckless arson is considered a misdemeanor with jail time of 6 months and a fine of up to $1,000. California also has penalties for “aggravated arson” which is a sentence of 1 to 5 years of state prison if you have a prior conviction of reckless arson, a firefighter, policeman or another emergency responder is injured because of the fire,there is more than one person injured from the fire or you cause multiple structures to burn.

If you are convicted of any arson offense, the judge can also order you to submit to a psychiatric or psychological evaluation in order to help him or her decide on the length of your sentence. If you find yourself in a situation facing an arson conviction, speak with an experienced attorney immediately.


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