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Arson Laws (PC 451/452) in California

I. California Penal Code 451 – Arson


Legal Definition: A person is guilty of arson when he or she willfully and maliciously sets fire to or burns or causes to be burned or who aids, counsels, or procures the burning of, any structure, forest land, or property.

For a person to be convicted of a violation of PC 451, the prosecution must prove the following:

1. You set fire to or burned or counseled/helped/caused the burning of a structure/forest land/property;

AND

2. You acted willfully and maliciously in the commission of that act.

II. What does this mean?


To set fire to or burn means to damage or destroy with fire either all or part of something, no matter how small the part. You commit an act willfully when you do it willingly or on purpose. You act maliciously when you intentionally do a wrongful act or when you act with the unlawful intent to defraud, annoy, or injure someone else.

You cannot, however, be found guilty of committing arson against your own property, so long as you are not doing so for the purposes of insurance fraud. A structure is any (building/bridge/tunnel/power plant/commercial or public tent. Property means personal property or land other than forest land. 

III. Penalties


The punishments for Arson depend on which section of Arson you are convicted of.

  1. PC 451(a) Arson causing great bodily injury: This is a felony offense, where if convicted, you could be sentenced to upwards of five, seven, or nine years in a State Prison. You would have to serve 85% of that sentence.
  2. PC 451(b) Arson of inhabited structure: This is a felony offense, where if convicted, you could be sentenced to upwards of three, five, or eight years in a State Prison. You would have to serve 85% of that sentence.
  3. PC 451(c) Arson to a structure: This is a felony offense, where if convicted, you could be sentenced to upwards of two, four, or six years in a State Prison. You would have to serve 85% of that sentence.
  4. PC 451(d) Arson of property: This is a felony offense, where if convicted, you could be sentenced upwards of 16 months, two or three years in a State Prison. You would have to serve 85% of that sentence.
  5. PC 452(a) Unlawfully causing fire that causes great bodily injury (GBI): This is a wobbler offense, meaning it can be charged as a misdemeanor or as a felony offense. If you are convicted of these charges as a misdemeanor, you could be sentenced to up to one year in a County Jail. If you are convicted of this charge as a felony offense, you could be sentenced to upwards of two, four, or six years in a State Prison. You would have to serve 50% of that sentence.
  6. PC 452(b) Unlawfully caused a fire to an inhabited structure: This is a wobbler offense, meaning it can be charged as a misdemeanor or as a felony offense. If you are convicted of these charges as a misdemeanor, you could be sentenced to up to one year in a County Jail. If you are convicted of this charge as a felony offense, you could be sentenced to upwards of two, three, or four years in a State Prison. You would have to serve 50% of that sentence.
  7. PC 452(c) Unlawfully caused a fire to structure or forest: This is a wobbler offense, meaning it can be charged as a misdemeanor or as a felony offense. If you are convicted of these charges as a misdemeanor, you could be sentenced to up to 180 days in a County Jail. If you are convicted of this charge as a felony offense, you could be sentenced to upwards of 16 months, two or three years in a State Prison. You would have to serve 50% of that sentence.
  8. PC 452(d) Unlawfully causing fire to property: This is a misdemeanor offense, where, if you are convicted of these charges you could be sentenced to up to 180 days in a County Jail. You would have to serve 50% of that sentence.

Arson under PC 451 is a serious felony and qualifies as a strike under California’s Three Strike Law. Arson is also considered a moral turpitude crime. A crime of moral turpitude means that the crime is considered to be morally wrong and carries special consequences for licensed professionals as well as people living in the United States on a temporary basis. Also, given the damage caused, the Restitution in Arson cases is typically among the highest in all of Criminal Law.

IV. Common Defenses


  1. Statute of Limitations
  2. Insufficient Evidence
  3. Insanity
  4. Lack of Scientific Evidence
  5. Violation of your Rights

Arson law has advanced over the years, ever since people started taking insurance out on their properties, which would then mysteriously learn on, burn to the ground. This makes sense, as the insurance on buildings and homes is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and even millions of dollars. Thus, in order to protect themselves against people collecting that money, for fear of fraud, or just because they did not want to pay out the insurance, insurance companies have furthered this agenda.

The science of Arson Investigation by arson investigators and experts tends to look towards the possible presence of accelerating material to expedite the fast burning, the rate of how the structure was burned, and the meaning of heat burns on a piece of the structure, and more.

The difficulty here is that most Arson charges must be proved by the details of the fire, and the fire itself usually has destroyed those clues. Forced confession, faulty eyewitnesses, among other issues, have made it difficult for prosecutors to prove Arson cases against people, let alone Insurance investigators trying to avoid a payout. This is not an invitation to burn down your home for insurance purposes, either.

V. Call Today


Arson charges are very difficult and very hard to defend. The science involved in fighting and debunking the prosecution’s theory of the case is not easy, but it can be done. It is not uncommon for any fire that happens on your property, for the finger-pointing to be placed on you. But, as explained above, it’s not always an easy case to prove against you. That is why hiring the right attorney to protect you and help navigate you through the difficult science for your defense is crucial. Call me today at 909-939-7126, and I can help you or your loved one through this.

Disclaimer: The legal information presented at this site should not be construed to be formal legal advice, nor should it be considered the formation of a lawyer or attorney-client relationship. If you would like to find out more information about your particular legal matter, contact our office for a consultation.

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