Criminal defense of arson charges in Southern California courts revolves around (1) questioning the identity of the suspect - how is he linked to the fire (2) establishing intent - was the fire started intentionally or accidentally and (3) reviewing the other legal elements required for prosecution pursuant to Penal Code Section 451.
The wildfire that began in the Santa Barbara area earlier this month was apparently an act of accidental arson. The fire that destroyed scores of homes in Montecito and Santa Barbara was caused by a group of young people who had built a bonfire.
A group of 10 young men and women described by authorities as locals went to the Tea house, an abandoned mansion, for a bonfire party. They told Santa Barbara County sheriff's investigators that they had put the fire out before they left that night. But authorities believe the fire continued to smolder before breaking out into fire when winds swept in Thursday afternoon. Last year, officials arrested several people who allegedly started a bonfire in some caves above Corral Canyon in Malibu, where flames burned dozens of homes.
Arson is a serious matter, especially in Los Angeles where the yearly fires cost millions of dollars in damage, as well as the lives of some home owners. Arson is a serious crime, and the laws hand down stiff penalties to individuals who commit the crime, whether purposefully or accidentally. Criminal defense attorneys who defend arson cases often have to dig through piles of facts, research and so forth to find out exactly what the prosecution will portray as the truth.
Under the criminal law of most states, arson is committed when a person intentionally burns almost any kind of structure or building, not just a house or business. Many states recognize differing degrees of arson, based on such factors as whether the building was occupied and whether insurance fraud was intended.
To enforce state fire and forest laws, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's 300 plus officers are busy year round investigating fire causes, interviewing witnesses, issuing citations and setting up surveillance operations. Additionally, law enforcement staff provides assistance when requested by local fire and law enforcement agencies in arson, bomb, fireworks, and fire extinguisher investigations, as well as disposal of explosives. Office of the State Fire Marshal Arson and Bomb Specialists provide fire and bomb investigation services to state-owned facilities, and provide assistance to local government fire and law agencies. The Department's investigators have a very successful conviction rate.
Criminal defense attorneys who defend those accused of arson understand that the laws governing arson are strict and harsh. According to California Penal Code 451.5. (a) Any person who willfully, maliciously, deliberately, with premeditation, and with intent to cause injury to one or more persons or to cause damage to property under circumstances likely to produce injury to one or more persons or to cause damage to one or more structures or inhabited dwellings, sets fire to, burns, or causes to be burned, or aids, counsels, or procures the burning of any residence, structure, forest land, or property is guilty of aggravated arson if one or more of the following aggravating factors exists:
(1) The defendant has been previously convicted of arson on one or more occasions within the past 10 years.
(3) The fire caused damage to, or the destruction of, five or more inhabited structures. (b) Any person who is convicted under subdivision (a) shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for 10 years to life. (c) Any person who is sentenced under subdivision (b) shall not be eligible for release on parole until 10 calendar years have elapsed.
Tagged as: arson pc 451, california criminal laws
Comments:Phils sabordo comm 174 on December 13, 2008 at 12:58 a.m. wrote:
Living in California with very dry climate and vegetation with the addition of Santa ana Winds has for many years created issues in our state regarding fires. Thousands of acres burned and hundreds of homes lost due to arson. I feel we need to do more as a state to really promote fire safety and a closer watch on those who intentionally commit arson. But i feel that it is unfair for those who committed a bonfire to be charged with such a heavy sentence.
Michelle Lepich on November 23, 2008 at 5:04 p.m. wrote:
It does not seem that the people who started the Santa Barbara fires could be guilty of ?aggravated arson? since they did not have any malicious intent. However, I would be interested to know what other charges could be brought against them and what convictions they would receive since they are still guilty of causing the fires, whether intentional or not. Is their involvement in the fires similar to a murder trial that turns out to be manslaughter, in which the convicted are still punished but to a lesser degree, or will the people who started this fire be absolved of all responsibility since it was an accident? Also, in this case, when the arsonists were merely having a bonfire as a group, is the person who physically lit the fire susceptible to harsher punishment that the other members who also brought the material and equally participated in all other aspects of the fire? It seems that there should be more of a community service penalty or fire-safety class requirement that gives back to the community they damaged and helps prevent accidents like this in the future, instead of prison time. However, if they were guilty of ?aggravated arson? with a malicious intent, then prison time would certainly be warranted.
Christine Paik Comm 174 on November 22, 2008 at 3:44 a.m. wrote:
'Criminal defense attorneys who defend arson cases often have to dig through piles of facts, research and so forth to find out exactly what the prosecution will portray as the truth.' This is a prime example of what Pizzi talks about in Chapter Six of his book, 'Trials Without Truth'. Unlike other countries which use investigative files and open them up for both the prosecution and the defense (and even the judge) to work with in the case, the United States criminal justice system requires two separate files by the time a trial approaches. In this case of arson, the criminal defense attorney will have to dig through an excessive amount of information not knowing whether any of it will be unnecessary because he or she will be unaware of what exactly the prosecution will come against the defendant with. This secrecy between the prosecution and the defense is what turns our trials into games of winning or losing rather than a search for the truth. Not only that, but this raises the price of having a trial for the defendant, since their attorney is required to spend more time and energy in the effort to win the case for their client. This is another example of how our criminal justice system, with all of the rights it has for defendants, actually works against the favor of the defendants.
Sesilya Saraydarian on November 21, 2008 at 12:38 p.m. wrote:
I was one of the people who was somewhat affected by the fires because the smoke from those fires were blown over to my neighborhood, making the air quality very bad and hard to breathe. Not only that, but it wasn't difficult to see the fires and all the roads around my house were closed off due to the fires. I've known people who have had to evacuate and...it's just a tragic and very heart-wrenching situation. I'm left wondering, however, what the punishment is for starting a fire accidentally. As the post claims, 'Arson is a serious crime, and the laws hand down stiff penalties to individuals who commit the crime, whether purposefully or accidentally.' First of all, how do you prove that the fire was accidental in the first place? In the situation above RE the 10 young men and women having a bonfire party at the abandoned mansion might as well have been telling the truth in putting out the fire upon taking their leave. But there are other cases where the parties involved already have a story straight and are able to give the authorities the same 'innocent' statement. Second, will these 10 men and women be charged the same sentence as those who do commit arson? According to the definition given, these people did not willfully or maliciously set fire with the intention of property destruction. Would angered fire marshals and authorities, coupled with the pressure the victims may be exerting due to their losses, push for and succeed in getting a harsher sentence and ignore that it was accidental?
Erik R. Martin on November 21, 2008 at 2:03 a.m. wrote:
Prosecuting individuals on the charges of arson, has got to be one of the more difficult cases to prove. Considering these recent wildfires, we can assume that they began with no ill intention. But ultimately, since damage occurred, someone must be prosecuted for originating the fire. The presumed unintentional burning by these individuals makes it difficult to define it as arson. It can be said it was accidental, but prosecutors need to look upon this situation as they would in a manslaughter case; they need to examine if there was a motive to the start of the fire. A conscious crime was not committed, but essentially a crime did occur. It is clear that the young group was informed of the possible dangers of creating a bonfire, for that reason they put the fire out. These individuals clearly underestimated the power of fire and made a boneheaded decision to leave the fire active. Presumably these people began the fire, and if they did investigators need to find out to what extent these people focused on putting out the fire. The amount of effort they put into putting out the fire should dictate the extent of the charges.
Ashley Stein on November 20, 2008 at 9:35 p.m. wrote:
While it is unfortunate that these 10 young men and women may be charged with arson for an accidental act, it is perfectly understandable in the light of the damage their bonfire caused. This is an interesting situation because there was apparently no mailicious intent, but the destruction caused by such a thoughtless act warrants severe consequences. It is a harsh way to learn a lesson, but it was highly irresponsible of these young people not to ensure that their bonfire was fully put out before leaving, especially in light of the fires in the past few years, and the knowledge that we live in such a wildfire-prone area.
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