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Arson Laws in California – Penal Code 451 and 452 PC

Review of the Crime of Arson in California

California Penal Code 451 PC describes arson as willfully and maliciously setting a fire, causing, or aiding someone to burn a structure, forest land, or property. It's commonly known as “malicious arson.”

PC 451 is a felony offense punishable by up to nine years in state prison.

Arson Laws in California – Penal Code 451 and 452 PC
Penal Code 451 defines the crime of arson as willfully and maliciously setting a fire.

Related Penal Code 452 PC is described as recklessly starting a fire that causes injury to someone or damages property. It's commonly known as “reckless burning.”

PC 452 is a California “wobbler” that can be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony crime.

California has an extremely dry climate for much of the year, making the state and its thousands of miles of forests extremely susceptible to forest fires.

Deadly fires are happening more and more often due to climate change, as well as the actions of arsonists. In 2020 alone, more than two million Californian acres suffered the ravaging effects of fire.

Unsettling statistics indicate that this trend will continue to grow. According to some reports, arson cases have increased 20% over the past six years.

As isolated fire incidents may prove extremely dangerous, specifically within the Golden State, the California legislature tends to treat arson's crime quite harshly.

Our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers are providing a detailed review of California's arson laws.

California Penal Code 451 PC

California Penal Code Section 451 has subsections describing arson and its variants in detail, including:  

  • Penal Code Section 451(a) - regarding arson that causes bodily injury in its victims;
  • Penal Code Section 451(b) - regarding arson of an inhabited structure;
  • Penal Code Section 451(c) - regarding arson of an uninhabited structure or a forest;
  • Penal Code Section 451(d) - regarding arson of the defendant's own property OR the property of another.

In each of these discrete arson cases, there are different circumstances that the prosecution must prove.

One common thread among the four is that the prosecution must show that the arson was maliciously and willfully done.

What is the Definition of Arson?

 In California Penal Code Section 451, the language states:

  • "A person is guilty of arson when they 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."

Each of those specific words is crucial for the defense and prosecution of arson. Some helpful definitions follow:

What is the Definition of Arson in California?
In order to be convicted of arson, it must be proven there was a willful action done on purpose.
  • a willful action is one done on purpose;
  • a malicious action is one completed with the knowing intent to do wrong;
  • a structure, for the purposes of arson, refers to any power plant, tunnel, bridge, building, or, somewhat interestingly, a tent;
  • a forest land is any wooded, grassy, or brush-covered area;
  • a property is any land that isn't forest land.

Elements of the crime – CALCRIM 1515

In order for a prosecutor to obtain an arson conviction, they must prove (CALCRIM 1515) the defendant set fire to or burned, or caused burning of a structure, forest land, or property. Further, their act was done willfully and maliciously.

Related crimes  

The related California crimes for Penal Code 451 arson include:

Penal Code 459 PC – burglary,

Penal Code 602 PC – trespassing,

Penal Code 187 PC - murder.

What are the Penalties for PC 451 Arson?

Under California Penal Code 451 PC, the penalties for arson may vary widely. The specifics of the crime at hand will influence those penalties, for example:

  • specific type of property burned by arson,
  • whether somebody was injured.

If convicted of PC 451 arson, it's punishable by the following:

  • up to three years in jail for malicious arson of personal property,
  • up to six years in jail for malicious arson of structure or forest,
  • up to eight years in jail for malicious arson of inhabited structure,
  • up to nine years in jail for arson causing a great bodily injury.

As you can see, time in county jail or state prison will vary depending on the severity of the alleged arson. Also, fines will increase due to the severity of the crime

Criteria that drive up the severity of the crime include:

  • number of persons affected,
  • extent of the damage done, and
  • any prior convictions the defendant has.

Compounding circumstances for arson in California

Although arson in its basic forms is bad enough, there are aggravated situations that may increase penalties or cause enhancements to your sentencing. These situations include:

  • a larger than normal amount of damage as a result of alleged arson,
  • previous convictions for arson on the part of the defendant,
  • numerous serious injuries due to the alleged arson,
  • harm done to first responders.

One specific type of fire setting may result in more than an arson conviction: If a person burned down their own property.

If they did so to defraud their insurance or affected someone else in the process, they might face additional charges, such as insurance fraud.

Defenses for PC 451 Arson Charges 

If you or a loved one stands accused of arson in California, you may find yourself in a difficult place for defense. The state treats these crimes very seriously.

Defenses for PC 451 Arson Charges in California
Our lawyers might be able to prove the fire was an accident and not a willful act.

Our Los Angeles criminal lawyers can use some common defense strategies for arson charges, including:

  • the fire was an accident, not a willful act,
  • the fire was the result of an unrelated malfunction,
  • defendant is the victim of false accusations.

Recall from the elements of the crime above, the prosecutor must prove defendant acted willfully.

Perhaps we can cast reasonable doubt on this crucial factor by showing it was an accident.

Criminal Defense for California Arson Charges

The specific route that we will take will depend on the evidence and circumstances of the arson case.

We have experience handling the dynamics of arson cases and will closely review all the details relating to the alleged crime.

We might be able to negotiate with the prosecutor for reduced charges or a case dismissal. We will always work towards the most successful outcome possible.

Further, we might be able to persuade the prosecutor from filing charges before court through prefiling intervention.

Criminal Defense for California Arson Charges
Contact Eisner Gorin LLP to discuss the details of your case.

Eisner Gorin LLP is a top-ranked law firm serving people in Southern California, including Los Angeles County, Orange County, Santa Barbara County, Westlake Village, Ventura County, Riverside, and San Bernardino.

We are located at 1999 Avenue of the Stars, 11th Fl., Los Angeles, CA 90067.

Our main office is next to the Van Nuys Superior Court at 14401 Sylvan St #112 Van Nuys, CA 91401.

Contact our firm for an initial consultation at (877) 781-1570. 

We speak English, Russian, Armenian, and Spanish.

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