What is arson?

Arson is defined as the intentional burning of another person's home or property. In the United States, first and second-degree arson usually constitutes a felony, while third-degree arson and destruction of property are often categorized as misdemeanors. Arson penalties can range from probation and mental health counseling to years of imprisonment. Learn more in our legal guide below.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Arson is usually defined as the intentional setting of fires and the burning of another person’s home or property. In some states, the definition of the crime is expanded to include setting fire to one’s own property if done for an improper purpose. Some acts of arson are motivated by attempts to collect money through false homeowner’s insurance claims, which is another crime: insurance fraud.

In most states, arson includes the intentional burning of an unoccupied structure. Laws vary by state but in California, for example, to prove a person committed arson, the state must show the circumstances are that the defendant:

  1. Set fire to, or caused the burning of a structure, property, or forest; and
  2. Acted willfully and maliciously.

Charges are typically elevated to aggravated arson when the structure is occupied. Penalties for aggravated arson can be far more severe.

What are the degrees of arson?

Charges of arson can be categorized by degree:

  • First-degree arson refers to an intentional fire set in a home, house of worship, or occupied building;
  • Second-degree arson includes the intentional burning of an unoccupied building or vehicle; and
  • Third-degree arson includes the intentional burning of someone’s personal property. Some states regard this third act not as arson but as personal property destruction.

First and second-degree arson usually constitutes a felony, while third-degree arson and destruction of property are often categorized as misdemeanors.

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What are the penalties for arson?

Penalties for most cases of arson and aggravated arson can range from probation and mental health counseling to years of imprisonment. Since arson is an intentional crime, any deaths from the resulting fire can be considered intentional murder, in which case an arsonist can face life imprisonment or the death penalty in some states.

Punishment and sentencing for arson crimes will depend on the level of property damage, the number of people injured, the intention to injure, and the arsonist’s motivation for setting the fire (such as an insurance policy payout or murder). An arsonist who burns a home intending to kill a family will certainly be treated differently by the courts than a property owner who burned a building that he believed to be unoccupied in an attempt to commit insurance fraud. The arsonist’s intent may be weighed as heavily as the actual resulting damage.

While all states have their own criminal code, the penalties for these offenses in most jurisdictions can be quite severe. For example, in Maryland, first-degree arson can carry a prison sentence of up to thirty years, along with a $50,000 fine. Second-degree arson can result in up to twenty years of jail time and a $30,000 fine. Attempted arson is also considered a crime and offenders can serve a maximum sentence of up to ten years in prison. All states agree that arson is a serious crime and the penal code in most jurisdictions reflects this opinion.

What are the defenses for arson?

Defense strategies in these cases usually involve the arsonist’s claim that he or she did not know the building was occupied while starting the fire. The nature of the building can make this easy or difficult to prove.

In cases where the defendant was intoxicated at the time the fire was started, they may try to use this as a defense. However, this is not likely to hold up in court. Regardless of intoxication, if it is shown that the defendant had unlawful intent, they will be found guilty.

If you are facing possible arson charges, be sure to contact a criminal defense attorney in your area.

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