Within the next few months, California will probably experience one of its horrendous annual wildfires. These highly destructive natural disasters are often caused by lightning strikes, wind that downs power lines, hot particles in car exhaust, or because it’s simply too hot.
Sometimes, though, these intense infernos can be directly linked to an individual’s decisions and actions. Starting a fire in the outdoors – even if it’s lighting or discarding a cigarette – always carries with it the risk of things getting out of hand. In a worst-case scenario, someone could find themselves facing criminal charges for arson or aggravated arson, depending upon the circumstances of the situation.
What Is Arson?
Arson is a very serious property crime that’s almost always charged as a felony. It involves the willful and malicious act of starting a fire that burns any structure, forest land, or other kinds of property. Because arson can run the gamut from reckless burning to homicidal intent, there are varying levels by which someone can be charged with this crime.
Here’s a small rundown of how arson can be charged and penalized in California:
- Arson that causes great bodily injury can be penalized by five, seven, or nine years in state prison. If the intent for arson was to hurt or kill another person, then attempted murder or first-degree murder charges may also be applied.
- Arson that burns an inhabited structure or property can be punished by three, five, or eight years in state prison.
- Arson of a structure or forest land can be punished with two, four, or six years in state prison.
- Arson of property that’s not a structure can be punished with 16 months, two, or three years in state prison. If someone burns their own property, this charge is inappropriate unless their intent is to defraud another party, the first causes injury to another party, or another party’s structure, forest land, or property is burned.
Arson is almost always charged as a felony. The exception is reckless burning, which can wobble between being charged as a misdemeanor or a felony, usually depending upon someone’s alleged intent and the extent of the damage.
What Is Aggravated Arson?
The levels of severity for arson can seem like they cover everything, so you’re probably wondering what kind of behavior or circumstances would warrant an aggravated arson charge. It comes down to whether or not someone was previously convicted of arson and/or the financial impact of the fire they caused.
Aggravated arson is likely charged when the following conditions are met:
- They were convicted of arson within the last 10 years, or
- The fire they started caused at least $5,650,000 in property damage and loss, or
- Five or more inhabited structures were damaged or destroyed
Aggravated arson carries with it the potential for very serious penalties. It can be punished from 10 years to life in state prison, with parole ineligibility effective until 10 years have been served. Incredibly steep fines and restitution can also be ordered.
What Are the Defenses to Arson in California?
If someone is charged with arson, there are several defenses that their attorney can use to mitigate their responsibility for the accusations. These include the defendant’s age (if younger than 14), mental capacity, lack of criminal intent or mistake of fact, duress, or necessity.
Do You Need Legal Help?
Only an experienced and competent attorney has what it takes to help someone defend against their arson or aggravated arson charges. If you are accused of either of these crimes, reach out to Corrigan Welbourn Stokke, APLC for help.
Our attorneys share more than 100 years of combined experience, which includes trial experience as former prosecutors that could be beneficial to your defense. Each client can expect to receive a personalized approach to their case, which may help them mitigate or eliminate their responsibility for criminal accusations.