UPDATED: May 24, 2013
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It's safe to say that nearly everyone has had a fire-related mishap at some point in their lives: the grease in the kitchen catches fire when making dinner or the grill gets out of control at a barbecue. Although generally deemed household accidents, these fires could potentially qualify as misdemeanor arson.
Misdemeanor arson is at the lowest echelon of arson charges. It involves the reckless setting of a fire or explosion that results in minimal damage. Very few states, like Arizona and Washington, have a misdemeanor version of arson. If a state does not have a misdemeanor arson statute, they will usually charge the crime as reckless burning, criminal mischief, or animal cruelty (if animals were injured as a result of the fire).
Higher levels of intentional arson are criminalized and punished more harshly. Medium levels of arson focus on arson allegations that result in bodily injury or substantial property damage. Misdemeanor arson, in contrast, focuses on reckless conduct with minimal damage.
Proving Misdemeanor Arson
The first element of a misdemeanor arson charge is proving that a person knowingly started a fire. However, when a person knowingly starts a fire on their outdoor grill, simply being negligent in maintaining it would not qualify the conduct as misdemeanor arson. Even if the person is not charged with a crime, however, they could still be held civilly liable for their failure to control the fire.
The second element is proving that the setting of the fire or the events leading up to the explosion were reckless. Starting a fire on the grill using factory controls will not constitute reckless conduct. However, if a defendant got impatient and began dousing the grill with excessive amounts of lighter fluid that eventually caused the fire to burn out of control, the reckless conduct could qualify as misdemeanor arson because a substantial risk was ignored.
The third element is the degree of damage or potential damage. The level of damage or potential damage is set by state penal codes. For example, Arizona will require that the value of the property damaged be less than $100. Washington does not require a specific value amount or an actual damage to property, but instead will charge a defendant for a gross misdemeanor offense if there was a potential that some property could have been damaged.
Definitions of misdemeanor arson vary by state, so the defensive options will also vary. Some states, like Arizona, allow defendants to raise voluntary intoxication, or being drunk, as a defense. Others limit the use of voluntary intoxication for misdemeanor arson charges based on reckless conduct.
Instead of invoking a specific statutory defense, many defendants focus on negating the mental state of a misdemeanor arsonist. Reckless conduct requires some proof that a defendant ignored a risk. If a defendant can present evidence that their conduct was simply negligent, but not reckless, they could avoid criminal liability for the misdemeanor arson charge. This type of defense would work well with offenses like an accidental kitchen fire.
If a misdemeanor arson charge is based on the potential for damage to another’s property, a potential defense would be to show that the defendant took precautions to avoid damage or risk to others.
Misdemeanors in general tend to carry a lower punishment range, but the exact range will depend on the state law. Misdemeanor arson carries a maximum punishment of six months in Arizona, but can be up to a year or more in other states. Fines can also be imposed ranging from $500 to $2000; and court costs are usually around $300. The biggest concern for many defendants is criminal liability as this can giveway to jail time. A misdemeanor arson charge can result in civil liabilities as well.
Before presenting a defensive theory that demonstrates negligence versus reckless conduct, a defendant should consult with a civil attorney, or a criminal attorney that also handles civil matters. By proving negligent conduct, a defendant may save themselves from criminal liability, but lock themselves into a lawsuit for civil damages.
Despite the “misdemeanor” title, any defendant charged with misdemeanor arson should keep in mind that it is still a criminal offense. If convicted, it will appear on their criminal record and could be basis for an employer deciding not to hire a defendant. It can also have long-term civil consequences. Talking to a criminal attorney will help a defendant leverage any useful defenses and avoid more liability.