Arson is defined as the willful and malicious burning of the property of another. It is considered a violent crime and is treated as a felony in most states. According to the National Fire Incident Reporting System, almost 17,000 acts of arson occur annually in the United States, leading to over half a million dollars in property losses each year.
Elements of Arson
Traditionally, arson has been defined as the malicious burning of the dwelling of another. This definition is highly specific, and many modern statutes have now expanded upon it, including commercial and industrial buildings in addition to family homes or apartment buildings.
What is Malicious?
Often, the word "malicious" means nothing more than "intentional" in determining the malicious element of arson. Other times, the definition is more akin to highly reckless behavior.
Most importantly, the crime of arson requires that the perpetrator maliciously intended to cause a fire that burns a structure. This means that accidentally starting a fire is insufficient. Likewise, an individual’s negligent actions, such as failing to turn off a stove before leaving a home, do not support a charge of arson. Arson historically has required that an actual burning of the home occurred, but this rule has been relaxed in many state statutes. The act of arson now often encompasses causing smoke damage to a property, setting off an explosion that leads to a fire in a dwelling, and even starting a fire that never actually results in burning or is discovered and put out before it can cause damage. Finally, many arson statutes now allow the crime of arson to be charged even when an individual sets fire to his or her own home, thereby eliminating the requirement that there is burning of the property “of another.” This is often done to combat cases of possible insurance fraud, or when an individual knew that setting fire to his or her own home clearly risked the possibility of burning nearby buildings.
Many states recognize and criminalize varying degrees and types of arson depending on a number of factors. For instance, some states break down arson into two types: primary fires and secondary fires. Primary fires take place in inhabited buildings, such as homes, active businesses, or vehicles. Primary fires may also consist of acts of arson that result in injuries. Secondary fires are less serious than primary fires, such as a fire in an abandoned building or a fire that spreads from the primary fire.
Some states categorize arson as first-degree, second-degree, or third-degree, depending on the type of property burned. The burning of places where individuals are likely to reside, such as homes, schools, or businesses, may result in a charge of first-degree arson, while arson to abandoned buildings constitutes second-degree, and the burning of personal property is third-degree. This means that a more serious form of arson will result in harsher penalties.
Punishment for Arson
Arson related to insurance fraud is not taken lightly and can result in up to 10 years in prison.
Since arson is typically charged as a felony, defendants are usually subject to fines and prison time. If the arson results in the death of individuals inside the dwelling or near it, a defendant can also be charged under the felony murder rule and may face up to a lifetime in prison. Many states also have special provisions related to arson and insurance fraud because of the significant portion of fires that are a product of fraudulent intent. Both law enforcement agencies and insurance companies have dedicated teams of inspectors who specialize in determining whether an act of arson was the result of fraud. Defendants found guilty of engaging in arson and insurance fraud may face up to 10 years or more in prison.