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What is arson?

UPDATED: February 26, 2020

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Arson is usually defined as the intentional burning of another person’s home or property. In some states, the definition of the crime is expanded to include the burning of one’s own property if done for an improper purpose. Some acts of arson are motived by attempts to collect money through false homeowner’s insurance claims.

In most states, arson includes the intentional burning of an unoccupied structure. Laws vary by state but in California, for example, to prove a person committed Arson, the state must show that the defendant:

  1. Set fire to, or caused the burning of a structure, property, or forest; and
  2. Acted willfully and maliciously.

Charges are typically elevated to aggravated arson when the structure is occupied. Penalties for aggravated arson can be far more severe.

Degrees of Arson

Charges of arson can be categorized by degree:

  • First degree arson refers to an intentional fire set in a home, house of worship, or occupied building;
  • Second degree arson includes the intentional burning of an unoccupied building or vehicle; and
  • Third degree arson includes the intentional burning of someone’s personal property. Some states regard this third act not as arson but as destruction of property.

First and second degree arson usually constitute a felony, while third degree arson and destruction of property are often categorized as misdemeanors.


Penalties for most cases of arson and aggravated arson can range from probation and mental health counseling to years of imprisonment. Since arson is an intentional crime, any deaths from the resulting fire can be considered intentional murder, in which case an arsonist can face the death penalty in some states.

Punishment and sentencing for arson crimes will depend on the level of property damage, the number of people injured, the intention to injure, and the arsonist’s motivation for setting the fire. An arsonist who burns a home intending to kill a family will certainly be treated differently by the courts than an arsonist who burned a building which he believed to be unoccupied. The arsonist’s intent may be weighed as heavily as the actual resulting damage. 

While all states have their own criminal code, the penalties in most jurisdictions can be quite severe. For example, in Maryland, first degree arson can carry a prison sentence of up to thrity years, along with a $50,000 fine. Second degree arson can result in up to twenty years of jail time and a $30,000 fine. Attempted arson is also considered a crime and offenders can serve up to ten years in jail. All states agree that arson is a serious crime and the penal code in most jurisdictions reflects this opinion.


Defense strategies in these cases usually involve the arsonist’s claim that he or she did not know the building was occupied while starting the fire. The nature of the building can make this easy or difficult to prove.

In cases where the defendant was intoxicated at the time the fire was started, they may try to use this as a defense. This would not likely hold up in court. Regardless of intoxication, if it is shown that the defendant had the intent to do harm, they will be found guilty.  

If you are facing possible arson charges, be sure to contact a criminal defense attorney in your area.

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