Arson is a crime of intentionally, deliberately and maliciously setting fire to buildings, wildland areas, abandoned homes, vehicles or other property with the intent to cause damage. It may be distinguished from other causes such as spontaneous combustion, accidental fires (smoking in bed, e.g.) and natural wildfires. Arson often involves someone deliberately burning their own property, or having someone else do it, to collect the insurance.
A person who commits this crime is called an arsonist. More often than not, arsonists use accelerants (such as gasoline or kerosene) to ignite, propel and directionalize fires.
English common law
Historically, the common law crime of arson had four elements:
- The malicious
- of the dwelling
- of another
- For purposes of common law arson, "malicious" refers action creating a great risk of a burning. It is not required that the defendant acted intentionally or willfully for the purpose of burning a dwelling.
- At common law charring to any part of dwelling was sufficient to satisfy this element. No significant amount of damage to the dwelling was required. Any injury or damage to the structure caused by exposure to heat or flame is sufficient.
- Of the dwelling
- 'Dwelling' refers to a place of residence. The destruction of an unoccupied building was not considered arson, "...since arson protected habitation, the burning of an unoccupied house did not constitute arson." At common law a structure did not become a residence until the first occupants had moved in, and ceased to be a dwelling if the occupants abandoned the premises with no intention of resuming their residency. Dwelling includes structures and outbuildings within the curtilage. Dwellings were not limited to houses. A barn could be the subject of arson occupied as a dwelling.
- Of another
- Burning one's own dwelling does not constitute common law arson, even if the purpose was to collect insurance, because "it was generally assumed in early England that one had the legal right to destroy his own property in any manner he chose". Moreover, for purposes of common law arson, possession or occupancy rather than title determines whose dwelling the structure is. Thus a tenant who sets fire to his rented house would not be guilty of common law arson, while the landlord who set fire to a rented dwelling house would be guilty.
Many U.S. state legal systems divided arson into degrees, depending sometimes on the value of the property but more commonly on its use and whether the crime was committed in the day or night.
- First-degree arson – Burning an occupied structure such as a school
- Second-degree arson – Burning an unoccupied building such as an empty barn
- Third-degree arson – Burning an abandoned building or an abandoned area, such as a field
Many statutes vary the degree of the crime according to the criminal intent of the accused.
In the United States, the common law elements of arson are often varied in different jurisdictions. For example, the element of "dwelling" is no longer required in most states, and arson occurs by the burning of any real property without consent or with unlawful intent. Arson is prosecuted with attention to degree of severity in the alleged offense. First degree arson generally occurs when persons are harmed or killed in the course of the fire, while second degree arson occurs when significant destruction of property occurs. While usually a felony, arson may also be prosecuted as a misdemeanor, "criminal mischief", or "destruction of property."
Burglary also occurs, if the arson involved a "breaking and entering". A person may be sentenced to death if arson occurred as a method of homicide, as was the case in California of Raymond Lee Oyler and in Texas of Cameron Todd Willingham.
In New York, arson is charged in five degrees. Arson in the first degree is a Class A-1 felony and requires the intent to burn the building with a person inside using an explosive incendiary device. It has a maximum sentence of 25 years to life.
In California, a conviction for arson of property that is not your own is a felony punishable by up to three years in state prison. Aggravated arson, which carries the most severe punishment for arson, is punishable by 10 years to life in state prison. Raymond Lee Oyler was ultimately convicted of murder and sentenced to death for a 2006 fire in southern California that led to the deaths of five U.S. Forest Service firefighters; he was the first U.S. citizen to receive such a conviction and penalty for wildfire arson.
Some states, such as California, prosecute the lesser offense of "reckless burning" when the fire is set recklessly as opposed to wilfully and maliciously. The study of the causes is the subject of fire investigation.
England, Wales, and Hong Kong
In English law, arson was a common law offence (except for the offence of arson in royal dockyards) dealing with the criminal destruction of buildings by fire. The common law offence was abolished by s.11(1) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971. The 1971 Act makes no distinction as to mode of destruction except that s.1(3) requires that if the destruction is by fire, the offence is charged as arson; s.4 of the Act provides a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for conviction under s.1 whether or not the offence is charged as arson. In Hong Kong, the common law offence was abolished by s 67 of the Crimes Ordinance 1971 (Part VIII of which, as amended by Crimes (Amendment) Ordinance 1972, mirrored the English Criminal Damage Act 1971). Like the English counterparts, 63 of the 1972 Ordinance provides a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, and s 60(3) of the Ordinance requires that if the damage is by fire the offence should be charged as arson.
Scotland has no offence known as arson. Events constituting arson in English law might be dealt with as one or more of a variety of offences such as wilful fire-raising, culpable and reckless conduct, vandalism or other offences depending on the circumstances of the event. The more serious offences (in particular wilful fire-raising and culpable and reckless conduct) can incur a sentence of life imprisonment.
- ^ arson 1680, from Anglo-French arsoun (1275), from Old French arsion, from Late Latin arsion- (root form of arsio) "a burning," from Latin arsus past particple of ardere "to burn", from PIE base *as- "to burn, glow" (see ardent). The Old English term was bærnet, lit. "burning"; and Edward Coke has indictment of burning (1640). Arsonist is from 1864. Dictionary.com. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian.  (accessed: January 27, 2008)
- ^ Kumar, Kris (February 2008). "Deliberately lit vegetation fires in Australia". Trends and issues in crime and criminal justice. Lynnwood: Australian Institute of Criminology (350). ISBN 978-1-921185-71-7. ISSN 0817-8542. Archived from the original on July 22, 2008. Retrieved 2009-01-09.
- ^ "Cops race to stop Hollywood-area arson car fires". CBS News. December 31, 2011. Retrieved January 23, 2012.
Several more cars burned in suspected arson attacks [...]
- ^ "Kintbury car fire was arson". Newbury Weekly News. January 19, 2012. Retrieved January 23, 2012.
A car fire [...] is being treated as arson.
- ^ arson. Dictionary.com. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. Accessed: January 27, 2008
- ^ Black's Law Dictionary (9th ed.). 2009. Arson.
At common law, the malicious burning of someone else's dwelling house or outhouse that is either appurtenant to the dwelling house or within the curtilage.
- ^ Boyce & Perkins, Criminal Law, 3rd ed. (1992) at 280, 281.
- ^ a b c Boyce & Perkins, Criminal Law, 3rd ed. (1992) at 281.
- ^ "Arson: Legal Aspects – Common Law Arson". Law Library – American Law and Legal Information. Retrieved 2008-05-10.
- ^ See U.S. v. Miller', 246 Fed.Appx. 369 (C.A.6 (Tenn.) 2007); U.S. v. Velasquez-Reyes, 427 F.3d 1227, 1230–1231 and n. 2 (9th Cir.2005).
- ^ "Campus Crime: Crime Codes and Degree of Severity". California State University, Monterey Bay. Archived from the original on December 24, 2008. Retrieved 2008-05-10.
- ^ See U.S. v. Miller, 246 Fed.Appx. 369 (C.A.6 (Tenn.) 2007)
- ^ Garofoli, Joe (September 1, 2007). "Suspect in Burning Man arson decries event's loss of spontaneity". San Francisco Chronicle. p. A8. Archived from the original on April 25, 2008. Retrieved 2008-05-11.
- ^ "Reason for Referral". Nebraska Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice. Archived from the original on May 3, 2008. Retrieved May 11, 2008.
- ^ "Man accused of arson pleads to misdemeanor charges". The Salina Journal. January 25, 2008. Archived from the original on December 22, 2008. Retrieved 2008-05-11.
- ^ 3 Charles E. Torcia, Wharton's Criminal Law § 326 (14th ed. 1980)
- ^ "Getting Tough on Arson". Utne Reader. Jan–Feb 2011. p. 13.
- ^ William Blackstone (1765–1769). "Of Offenses against the Habitations of Individuals [Book the Fourth, Chapter the Sixteenth]". Commentaries on the Laws of England. Oxford: Clarendon Press (reproduced on The Avalon Project at Yale Law School). Archived from the original on May 3, 2008. Retrieved 2008-06-01..
- ^ "Criminal Damage Act 1971". Retrieved 2010-03-24.
- ^ Legco.gov.hk
- ^ Hklii.hk
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