If you have been charged with setting fire to land or a building or burning down a structure, then it is time to contact an experienced Fresno arson defense lawyer. While arson may be considered a crime against property, it is no less serious than a crime directly committed against a person. All arson-related crimes, including attempted and reckless arson are felonies under California law. At best, the minimum penalty is more than one year in prison. At worst, aggravated arson can lead to life in prison. To avoid the harsh statutory penalties and long-term collateral consequences, contact a Fresno property crimes attorney with Michael McKneely, Criminal Defense Lawyer at (559) 443-7442.
With more than 15 years of experience, attorney Mike McKneely is here to review your case, protect your rights, and advise you on the next best steps.
Arson in California
California Penal Code Sections 451 and 452 establish the crime of arson—willfully and maliciously setting fire to, burning, or causing to be burned any structure, forest land, or property. You can also be charged with arson if you aid, counsel, or procure the burning of a structure, forest land, or property, such as if you paid someone to set fire to a building or helped them to do it.
You may wonder about your right to burn your own property. It is not a crime to set fire to your own personal property unless you do so with the intent to injure another person or you had the intent to defraud. For instance, if you burned your home to recover an insurance payout, this would be fraud, and also arson.
Potential Penalties Upon Conviction
The statutory penalty for an arson offense depends on the type of property that was burned, whether or not people lived there, and whether it caused anyone injury. The penalties for different forms of arson are:
- Arson of property is a felony, punishable by 16 months to 3 years in state prison.
- Arson of an uninhabited structure or forest land is a felony, punishable by 2 to 6 years in state prison.
- Arson of an inhabited structure or property is a felony, punishable by 3 to 8 years in a state prison.
- Arson that causes great bodily injury is a felony, punishable by 5 to 9 years in state prison.
Aggravated Arson in California
California Penal Code Section 451.5 punishes the offense of aggravated arson, which is arson plus one or more of the following factors:
- You were previously convicted of arson within the past 10 years
- The fire caused property damage or other loses, including the cost of fire suppression, in excess of $7 million
- The fire damaged or destroyed five or more inhabited structures.
If you are convicted of aggravated arson, you can be sentenced to life imprisonment with ten years before you are eligible for parole consideration.
Sentence Enhancements for Arson
Arson sentences can also be increased for other reasons. Under California Penal Code section 451.1, you can be sentenced to an additional 3 to 5 years in prison for an arson offense, if:
- You have a previous arson conviction
- A firefighter, police officer, or other emergency personnel suffered great bodily injury
- You caused great bodily injury to more than one victim during a single incident
- You caused multiple structures to burn during a single incident
- You are found to have committed arson by using a device intended to delay ignition or accelerate the fire
Arson and aggravated arson in California are felonies that leave you with a permanent criminal record. Additionally, the law requires arsonists to register their address for life. Being on the arson registry can seriously hamper your abilities to do many things.
Unfortunately, after you complete your punishment and pay your debt to society, you may find that there are numerous collateral consequences of a criminal record, which can hold you back in life. Once you have this destructive and potentially violent crime in your history, it may be difficult to get a job, be approved for an apartment, gain visitation or custody with your kids, and more.
When facing arson charges, your best chance to avoid a harsh punishment and the collateral consequences of conviction is to work with an experienced Fresno arson defense attorney.
Defending Against Arson Charges
There are multiple potential defenses to arson charges. The strongest defense for your case depends entirely on your situation and the evidence prosecutors have against you. Common defenses include:
- Mistake of identity: This is the defense that the crime was committed by someone else. The police arrested the wrong person and you have evidence that you were elsewhere at the time of the crime.
- Lack of criminal intent: This defense focuses on whether you intentionally and maliciously started the fire. You may have evidence that you were acting under a mistake of fact, such as that you were only burning your own personal property.
- Accident: The defense of lack of criminal intent may be based on the fact that the fire began by accident.
- Duress: You may have evidence that you set fire to a property or structure because you were under duress or forced to by someone else.
- Mental incapacity: This defense states that you did commit the act of burning a property or structure but that you did not have the mental capacity to understand what you were doing and the consequences of your actions.
- Involuntary intoxication: While voluntary intoxication, such as drinking alcohol, is rarely a successful defense to certain crimes, involuntary intoxication is. This defense requires evidence that you were drugged or intoxicated in some way without your consent.
Contact a Fresno Arson Defense Attorney Today
There are a number of strategies that a skilled arson defense attorney in Fresno can employ on your behalf against your arson charges. Call Michael McKneely, Criminal Defense Lawyer today at (559) 443-7442 to set up a free consultation. If you’re facing arson charges in California or are under investigation, preserve your legal rights by contacting us right away. Fresno criminal defense lawyer Michael McKneely has been on both sides of the criminal justice system, so he knows what to expect and how to make the process easier for you.