What Is the Crime of Arson?

Intentional Burning of a Structure, Building, Land, or Property

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Arson is the intentional burning of a structure, building, land or property; not necessarily a residence or business; it can be any building to which the fire causes structural damage.

Common Law Versus Modern Day Arson Laws

Common law arson was defined as the malicious burning of the dwelling of another. Modern day arson laws are much broader and include the burning of buildings, land, and any property including motor vehicles, boats and even clothing.

Under common law, only ​personal property that was physically attached to the dwelling was protected by the law. Other items, such as furniture inside the dwelling were not covered. Today, most arson laws cover any type of property, whether it is affixed to a structure or not.

How the dwelling was burned was very specific under common law. An actual fire had to be used for it to considered as arson. A dwelling destroyed by an explosive device was not arson. Most states today include the use of explosives as arson.

Under common law, malicious intent had to be proven in order for a person to be found guilty of arson. Under modern-day law, a person who has the legal right to burn something, but fails to make a reasonable effort to control the fire, can be charged with arson in many states.

If a person set fire to their own property they were safe under common law. Arson only applied to people who burned someone else's property. In modern law, you can be charged with arson if you set fire to your own property for fraudulent reasons, such as insurance fraud, or the fire spreads and causes damages to another person's property.

The Degrees and Sentencing of Arson

Unlike common law, most states today have different classification covering arson based on the severity of the crime.

First-degree or aggravated arson is a felony and most often charged in cases that involved loss of life or the potential for loss of life. This includes firefighters and other emergency personnel who are put at high risk.

Second-degree arson is charged when the damage caused by the fire was not as extensive and was less dangerous and less likely to result in injury or death.

Also, most arson laws today include the reckless handling of​ any fire. For example, a camper who fails to properly extinguish a campfire which results in a forest fire could be charged with arson in some states.

Sentencing for those found guilty of arson will likely face prison time, fines and restitution. Sentencing can be anywhere from one to 20 years in prison. Fines can exceed $50,000 or more and restitution will be determined based on the loss suffered by the property owner.

Depending on the intent of the person who starts the fire, sometimes arson is prosecuted as a lesser charge of criminal damage to property.

Federal Arson Laws

Federal arson law provides a penalty of imprisonment for up to 25 years and a fine or the cost of repairing or replacing any property that is damaged or destroyed, or both.

It also provides that if the building is a dwelling or if the life of any person is placed in jeopardy, the penalty will be a fine, imprisonment for "any term of years or for life," or both.

Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996

During the civil rights struggles in the 1960s, the burning of Black churches became a common form of racial intimidation. This act of racial violence returned with renewed aggression in the 1990s with the burning of more than 66 Black churches being burned in a period of 18 months.

In response, Congress quickly passed the Church Arson Prevention Act which  President Clinton signed the bill into law on July 3, 1996, 

The Act provides that the crime of "intentional defacement, damage, or destruction of any religious real property, because of the religious, racial, or ethnic characteristics of that property" or "intentional obstruction by force or threat of force, or attempts to obstruct any person in the enjoyment of that person's free exercise of religious beliefs.' can result in from one year in prison for a first offense to up to 20 years in prison depending on the severity of the crime.

Additionally, if bodily injury results to any person, including any public safety officer, a prison sentence of up to 40 years can be imposed as well as fines,

If death results or if such acts include kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill, the punishment can be a life sentence or death sentence.

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Montaldo, Charles. "What Is the Crime of Arson?" ThoughtCo, Jan. 5, 2021, thoughtco.com/the-crime-of-arson-970842. Montaldo, Charles. (2021, January 5). What Is the Crime of Arson? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-crime-of-arson-970842 Montaldo, Charles. "What Is the Crime of Arson?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-crime-of-arson-970842 (accessed May 9, 2021).