California’s Arson Laws Penal Code Section 451 and 452

California’s Arson Laws Penal Code Section 451 and 452

Arson in California, depending on the charge, is either a felony or a misdemeanor, but is taken very seriously. Regardless of whether it is a felony or a misdemeanor consequence, this is something that will stay on your record for the rest of your life. Therefore, it is highly recommended you retain an experienced and highly qualified criminal defense attorney who can fight on your behalf.

Definition of Arson

California’s arson law is defined under Penal Code sections 451 and 452 (PC 451/452). Under PC 451/452, the statutes make it illegal to willfully and maliciously or recklessly set fire to, burn, or cause to be burned any structure, forest, land, or property. Additionally, the statute makes it illegal for someone who aids, counsels, or procures the burning.

What does it mean to violate PC 451 (Arson)?

An individual is guilty of violating this law if they:

  1. Set fire to, burned, or caused to be burned structure, forest land, or property; and
  2. Acted willfully and maliciously.

Examples:

  • Setting fire to a neighbor’s house out of spite or revenge.
  • Burning trash belonging to another person without their permission or consent.
  • Throwing a lit match into dried shrubbery in a forest and causing a forest fire as a prank.
  • Burning own house intending to fraudulently receive insurance funds.

What does it mean to violate PC 452 (Unlawfully Causing a Fire)?

An individual is guilty of violating this law if they:

  1. Set fire to, burned, or caused to be burned structure, forest land, or property; and
  2. Did so recklessly.

“Recklessly” Versus “Willfully and Maliciously”

Recklessly means the person:

  • Was aware that his actions had a substantial or unjustifiable risk of causing a fire;
  • Ignored that risk; and
  • That ignorance was a gross deviation from what a reasonable person would have done in that same situation.

Willfully means when the person’s action was on purpose. Maliciously means the person intentionally did the wrongful act.

Similar/Related Offenses

California’s Penal Code Section 594 Vandalism

This law makes it a crime to willfully and maliciously deface another person’s property with graffiti, markings, or otherwise damaging or destroying said property. For more information, see our article on vandalism.

California’s Penal Code Section 459 Burglary

This law makes it a crime to enter a residence or commercial room or property with the intent to commit a theft or felony while inside. Even if the felonious act or theft never took place, simply entering the property with criminal intent is enough to commit burglary. For more information, see our article on burglary.

California’s Penal Code Section 602 Trespassing

Generally, trespassing is the unlawful entry onto the real property of another, without his or her consent. “Real property” means real estate and encompasses everything on the property. However, trespass can apply to conduct such as:

  • Refusing to leave a public building (including hotels and motels) or private land;
  • Driving a vehicle onto another’s land without that person’s permission; or
  • Taking soil or timber from another person’s land, without consent.

The list above is not exhaustive, for more information, see our article on trespassing.

California Penal Code Section 189 First-Degree Murder

This law makes it a crime to commit murder in the commission of an enumerated felony such as burglary, arson, rape, robbery, or kidnapping. Other enumerated felonies include: carjacking, drive-by shootings, train wrecking, and mayhem.

For example, for purposes of arson, if a person commits arson and during that arson, kills another human being, that person can also be charged with first-degree murder under PC 189.

For more information on murder, see our article on murder.

California’s Penal Code Section Insurance Fraud

This law makes it illegal to file an insurance claim with intent to mislead or falsify the information therein to obtain a benefit from the insurance company.

For example, a person who burns down his house to obtain insurance proceeds. In this scenario, it is likely the prosecutor would issue arson and insurance fraud charges. It is notable that in these types of cases, the arsonist would be fined double the actual/expected insurance proceeds.

The Prosecution

For the prosecution to prove the defendant committed the act of arson or unlawfully causing a fire under PC 451/452, they must first prove the elements of the crime took place.  The government must prove the following elements:

For arson (PC 451):

  1. Set fire to, burned, or caused to be burned structure, forest land, or property; and
  2. Acted willfully and maliciously*.

“Set fire” or “burn” means to damage or destroy with fire either all or part of something—the size of the burn is not significant.

A structure can encompass any building, bridge, tunnel, power plant, or commercial or public tent.

Forest land is brush-covered land, cut-over land, forest, grasslands, or woods.

Property means personal property or land besides forest land as defined above.

For unlawfully causing a fire (PC 452)

  1. Set fire to, burned, or caused to be burned structure, forest land, or property; and
  2. Acted recklessly*.

*See above section titled “Recklessly” Versus “Willfully and Maliciously” for distinctions.

Who Can Be Charged?

The following examples illustrate who can be charged with violating PC 451/452.

Ashley, who was extremely peeved with her neighbor, Ned, for his constant complaints about her children playing too loudly in her backyard, decided to settle things once and for all. Wanting to teach Ned a lesson, Ashley bought some gasoline and matches to set Ned’s house ablaze. Not intending to kill or seriously injure Ned, Ashley decided to burn down Ned’s house while he was out of town. That night, Ashley went to Ned’s house, doused the house in gasoline, and threw a lit match to start the house fire. The fire consumed the entire house. Although Ned was not home at the time, another neighbor, Gary, saw Ashley setting fire to Ned’s house. Gary reported Ashley to the police and Ashley was arrested. In this case, the prosecutor will likely charge Ashley with violating PC 451, arson, for setting Ned’s house on fire willfully and maliciously.

Jim, a notorious chain smoker, was picnicking with his co-workers on a Saturday afternoon. Jim, who was tired of walking back and forth to the nearest ashtray several yards away, flicked his lit cigarette onto the sidewalk. Although Jim noticed signs imploring visitors to properly dispose of cigarettes because of its potential to cause a forest fire, Jim ignored those signs. Unfortunately, the sidewalk had a slight slope and the lit cigarette rolled into some dried weeds. The dried weeds caught on fire, which eventually spread into a several hundred-acre fire. After the fire was extinguished, a witness came forward who saw Jim flick his lit cigarette. Jim was ultimately arrested. In this case, the prosecutor will likely charge Jim with violating PC 452, unlawfully causing a fire, for recklessly flicking his lit cigarette in a forest despite the warning sign.  

Legal Defenses

Facing charges for violating California’s PC 451/452, arson/unlawfully causing a fire, can be difficult to fight alone. An effective and aggressive criminal defense attorney will know the most common legal defenses to fight against these charges.

Did the defendant actually commit the elements of the crime?

It is important to understand if you did not commit the act maliciously and willfully/recklessly, you are not guilty of arson/unlawfully causing a fire.

Was it accidental?

You are not guilty of arson/unlawfully causing a fire if it was purely accidental. This means the act was not malicious or reckless in nature and you did not intend to or recklessly set fire to, burned, or cause to be burned any structure, forest land, or property.

Examples:

Jan, who wanted to impress her new boyfriend, Mike, with her culinary skills, decided to cook penne alla vodka. Jan, who misread her Italian cookbook, added a cup of vodka while the pan was still over an open flame. Jan, panicking, picked up the pan to take it to the sink but tripped over the kitchen mat. The flaming pan flew into the living room and Mike’s curtains caught on fire. The fire spread and Mike’s house burned down. Jan is not guilty of arson or unlawfully causing a fire as defined under PC 451/452 because she did not burn down Mike’s house with malicious intent nor did she burn Mike’s house down recklessly.

Bella, a very diligent medical student, was doing late-night research in her dorm room. Not wanting to disturb her sleeping roommate, Bella often studied by candlelight instead of keeping the lights in the room on. Bella, to fuel her studies, went to the communal kitchen to get an energy drink. While Bella was away, an unusually strong breeze from an open window carried a piece of paper over the lit candle and the paper caught on fire. That lit piece of paper eventually spread into a larger fire and the room was engulfed in flames. Fortunately, Bella’s roommate escaped, and the fire was contained. Bella is not guilty of arson or unlawfully causing a fire as defined under PC 451/452 because she did not burn down the dorm room with malicious intent nor did she burn the dorm room recklessly.

Mistaken identification?

In some cases, an eyewitness’s misidentification can lead to a false charge of arson or unlawfully causing a fire. For example, in the example above with Ashley, since it was nighttime, perhaps the eyewitness neighbor Gary mistakenly thought the culprit was Ashley since there was no visibility? Also, in the case of Jim illustrated above, maybe  

Perhaps the fire was not caused by arson?

In cases of arson, there is typically a fire investigator who investigates the cause of the fire. However, errors can occur in the investigation and even the most experienced investigators can get it wrong.

In its case in chief, the prosecution may call on these investigators as “expert witnesses” to support the charges against the alleged arsonist. An experienced criminal defense attorney can effectively cross-examine these expert witnesses and/or call her own expert witnesses to refute the prosecution’s expert witnesses.

Penalties

Penalties for arson/unlawfully causing a fire depends on the following factors:

  • Was it arson (PC 451) or unlawfully causing a fire (PC 452)?
  • What was the nature of the property that was burned?
  • Whether anyone was injured because of the fire?
  • Is there criminal history?

Penalties for PC 451

PC 451 is always a felony under California law and the penalties depends on the specifics of the case. The consequences for violating PC 451, arson, are as follows:

  • Arson that causes great bodily injury (PC 451(a)):
    • Imprisonment in state prison for five, seven, or nine years.
  • Arson that causes an inhabited structure or inhabited property to burn (PC 451(b)):
    • Imprisonment in state prison for three, five, or eight years.
  • Arson of a structure or forest land (PC 451(c)):
    • Imprisonment in state prison for two, four, or six years.
  • Arson of property (PC 451(d)):
    • Imprisonment in state prison for sixteen months, two, or three years.
  • Arson while confined in state prison, prison road camp, prison forestry camp, other prison camp, prison farm, or county jail while serving term or imprisonment for felony or misdemeanor conviction will be a consecutive sentence with the sentence for which the person was originally confined (PC 451(e)).

As for fines under PC 451, the fines can range up to ten-thousand dollars ($10,000). There could also be additional fines up to fifty-thousand dollars ($50,000) or double the actual/anticipated financial gain from the fire (in cases of insurance fraud).

Most importantly, a conviction under PC 451 is a “strike” offense, which is why it is important to have an experienced criminal attorney to possibly reduce the arson to unlawfully causing a fire under PC 452 in a plea bargain.

Penalties for PC 452

PC 452 is a wobbler in California, which means that it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony offense. It all depends on the specifics of the case. The consequences for violating PC 452, unlawfully causing a fire, are as follows:

  • Unlawful fire causing great bodily injury (PC 452(a)):
    • If charged as a felony – two, four, or six years in state prison.
    • If charged as a misdemeanor – imprisonment in county jail for not more than a year, a fine, or both.
  • Unlawful fire causing inhabited structure or inhabited property to burn (PC 452(b)):
    • If charged as a felony – two, three, or four years in state prison.
    • If charged as a misdemeanor – imprisonment in county jail for not more than a year, a fine, or both.
  • Unlawful fire causing structure or forest land to burn (PC 452(c)):
    • If charged as a felony – sixteen months or two or three years in state prison.
    • If charged as a misdemeanor – imprisonment in county jail for not more than six months, a fine, or both.
  • Unlawful causing property to burn (PC 452(d)):
    • Can only be charged as a misdemeanor.
    • Does not include burning own personal property unless that burning causes injury to another person or another person’s structure, forest land, or property.
      • For example, setting fire to a photograph, dropping the flaming photograph because it’s too hot, and a gust of wind takes that photograph to your neighbor’s tree, which results in your neighbor’s tree burning down. This will likely be charged as PC 452(d) because although it involved burning personal property, it caused harm to the neighbor’s tree.
    • Arson while confined in state prison, prison road camp, prison forestry camp, other prison camp, prison farm, or county jail while serving term or imprisonment for felony or misdemeanor conviction will be a consecutive sentence with the sentence for which the person was originally confined (PC 452(e)).

Aggravated Arson (PC 451.5)

Under PC 451.5, when a person willfully, maliciously, deliberately, with premeditation, and with intent: causes injury to one or more persons; causes damage to one or more structures or inhabited dwellings; or sets fire to, burns, or causes to be burned, or aids, counsels, or procures burning of any residence, structure, forest land, or property they are guilty of aggravated arson if one or more of the following factors exist:

  • Defendant was previously convicted of arson one or more times in the past ten years;
  • The fire caused property damage and other losses over seven million dollars ($7,000,000)—this includes the cost of fire suppression;
  • The fire caused damage to, or destruction of, five or more inhabited structures.

The penalty for aggravated arson is state prison for ten years to life.

Registering as Convicted California Arson Offender

Per Penal Code section 457.1, a person convicted under PC 451; aggravated arson; possessing, manufacturing, or disposing of any flammable or combustible material, or of any incendiary device in connection with the arson charge; or attempted malicious arson must register as a California Arson Offender, like registering as a California Sex Offender.

The length of registration depends on whether the person was an adult or a minor at the time of the offense and when convicted.

For minors, the registration ends once the minor turns twenty-five years old or whenever his or her records are sealed pursuant to Welfare and Institutions Code section 781, whichever occurs first.

Generally, for adults, offenses and convictions after November 30, 1994 require lifelong registration.

Most importantly, registering as a California Arson Offender can have serious implications on your life, which is why it is important to have an experienced criminal attorney to possibly reduce the arson to unlawfully causing a fire under PC 452 in a plea bargain and avoid having to register in the first place.

Penalties for Similar/Related Offenses

California Penal Code 459 PC Burglary

First-degree residential burglary is a felony and is punishable by imprisonment in state prison for two, four, or six years.

Second-degree commercial burglary is known as a wobbler, which means it can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor.

If charged as a felony, it is punishable by a term of imprisonment in county jail for sixteen months, or two or three years.

If charged as a misdemeanor, it is punishable by imprisonment in county jail not exceeding one year.

For more information, see our article on burglary.

California’s Penal Code Section 594 Vandalism

Punishment for vandalism under PC 594 depends on the dollar amount of the defacement, damage, or destruction and whether a prior conviction for vandalism exists.

If the amount of defacement, damage, or destruction is four hundred dollars ($400) or more, vandalism is punishable as a felony as follows:

  • Imprisonment in county jail for sixteen months, or two or three years;
  • Imprisonment in county jail not exceeding one year;
  • A fine; or
    • If the amount of defacement, damage, or destruction is ten-thousand dollars ($10,000) or less, then the fine is not more than ten-thousand dollars ($10,000).
    • If the amount of defacement, damage, or destruction is more than ten-thousand dollars ($10,000), then the fine will be not more than fifty-thousand ($50,000).
  • Imprisonment and a fine.

If the amount of defacement, damage, or destruction is four hundred dollars ($400) or less, vandalism is punishable as a misdemeanor as follows:

  • Imprisonment in county jail not exceeding one year;
  • Fine of not more than one thousand dollars ($1000); or
  • Imprisonment and fine.

If there is a prior conviction for vandalism and the amount of defacement, damage, or destruction is four hundred dollars ($400) or less, the potential imprisonment consequences are the same as a misdemeanor but the fine rises to five-thousand dollars ($5000).

For more information, see our article on vandalism.

California’s Penal Code Section 602 Trespassing

Most trespass cases are charged as misdemeanors but depending on the circumstances, it can also be charged as an infraction.

For misdemeanors, the punishment is up to six months in county jail and/or a fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1000).

For infractions, the punishment is a fine not exceeding one hundred dollars ($100).

For more information, see our article on trespassing.

California Penal Code Section 189 First-Degree Murder

For first-degree murder, the punishment is:

  • Death;
  • Imprisonment in state prison for life without possibility of parole; or
  • Imprisonment in state prison for a term of twenty-five years to life.

The seriousness of the possible consequences for first-degree murder is why it is so imperative to retain an experienced, knowledgeable, and reputable criminal defense attorney

For more information on murder, see our article on murder.

We Can Help

If you or someone you know is facing charges of violating California’s Penal Code section 451 (arson) or Penal Code section 452 (unlawfully causing a fire) it is highly recommended that you seek an experienced, knowledgeable, and reputable criminal defense lawyer. If you are located in the greater San Diego area, Orange County or Los Angeles, contact the Law Offices of Anna R. Yum. As a former prosecutor, Attorney Yum can spot the legal issues and attack the weaknesses in the government’s case in order to strive in achieving the best possible outcome. Don’t hesitate to contact a lawyer who will aggressively fight for your rights and your future. Call 619-233-4433 for a free consultation or consult with our online agents today.

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