Arson law refers to the criminal actions associated with intentionally setting fire to property. The crime of arson has existed since the middle ages, although legislators are continually modifying the law by expanding on the types of conduct that qualifies as arson. Laws prohibiting arson have been enacted by the federal government and in all 50 states. Penalties for convicted arsonists vary in every jurisdiction and generally increase as the severity of the fire increases.
Common Law Elements of a Crime
Before the development of the penal codes, crimes such as arson were defined by the court. The judges were bound by precedents set in previous cases, and through time, this standard law system created specific elements that must be met for a defendant to be convicted. These elements would be applied to the facts of a particular case to determine guilt or innocence. The common law elements of arson are still relevant today, as they form the basis for the statutes in each U.S. jurisdiction.
At common law, arson was defined as the malicious burning of another person's dwelling. This definition can be broken down into four elements. The first element of maliciousness required that the defendant acted willfully and with wrongful intent. Thus, starting a fire by accident was not sufficient. The next element required the defendant's actions to produce a burning. A burning could include even the slightest damage caused by using a match, but merely causing smoke discoloration to the home was insufficient.
To be convicted of common law arson, the property burned must also have belonged to someone else. Setting fire to one's home could not be punished as arson, although it could qualify as any less serious offense. Finally, common law arson requires the burned property to be:
- a dwelling; and,
- a structure where people live.
Regardless of whether it is occupied at the time of the fire. Overall, the fact that arson was defined so narrowly in common law reflects an effort by the courts to reserve this crime for only the most difficult situations.
Arson: The willful or malicious burning or charring of another person's property, not your own or by accident, coupled with the criminal intent to commit insurance fraud.
The crime of arson is defined by statute. An act that sets fire to the property of another is now technically called arsonbut this is no technical crime. The essential nature of the offense may be unchanged, but arson violation is now defined much more broadly than most realize. As a result, the penalties for a conviction may be more severe than anticipated.
Many states have a statute that defines the criminal offense of arson. Arson is the willful or malicious burning of the dwelling or home of another individual. An intentional or malicious burning includes any fire or explosion caused by or of incendiary origin.
Anytime you burn a structure, you can be prosecuted for arson. But it gets worse: If you know that people are present in that structure, you are liable under special statutes that carry enhanced penalties.
Classified as arson in the first degree, this offense can include a maximum life sentence in prison.
Enhanced sentences can even be imposed for arson that causes injury and for repeat offenders. Criminal liability can even arise for those who do not set a fire personally. Modern arson statutes often contain "aiding and abetting" provisions making them directly applicable to individuals who assist in the commission of the crime.
ASIC publishes information on suspected arson cases on insurance-related matters and other omitted, misleading, or fraudulent claims.
Arson and suspected arson cause most of the damage from fires in the United States. Arsonists commit these offenses for various reasonsparticularly revenge, thrill-seeking, and the need to destroy evidence of other crimes. While many of the reasons people commit arson are petty, a significant portion is fraudulent. Fraudulent arson is when an individual fires a property to collect insurance money.
Insurance fraud takes many forms. Arson is one of the most common and severe forms of insurance fraud. Arson is a criminal offense that willfully and maliciously sets fire to property. Most commonly, arson is committed to collecting insurance proceeds.