Penal Code § 451: Arson

June 19, 2015

Los Angeles Arson Defense Attorney

Arson is an inherently dangerous “strike offense” felony much like, robbery or burglary, and carries a mandatory state prison sentence. The sentencing range can depend on the type of structure charred or whether great bodily injury resulted. Although P.C. § 451 requires malice and willful intent to burn, however one can be charged with arson under P.C. § 452 if they acted recklessly causing burning. Thus, one can be charged with arson while acting intentionally or recklessly. Though arson is typically done on inhabited dwellings such as homes or apartment buildings, arson can be committed on property such as vehicles or simple personal property items. Additionally, contrary to popular belief, arson does not require actual “fire” rather arson requires only the slightest charring. Furthermore, one can be charged with arson if they aid or assist in procuring the burning.

The most critical aspect to arson charges are determining “why” a suspect or defendant committed the offense. Moreover, what was the suspect/defendants motivation for committing the act? This is usually solved by incriminating statements a suspect makes to law enforcement. Therefore, if you are under investigation for arson, it’s important not to make any statement to police or law enforcement and demand to speak with an attorney. If you are under investigation for arson, contact John Rogers at the earliest stages of the investigation. Early intervention by a skilled criminal defense attorney can make the difference of dropping the investigation entirely or negotiating with the prosecutor prior to formal criminal filing to a substantially reduced charge.

Arson Defined by Statute

In California, arson is defined under Penal Code § 451: “A person is guilty of arson when he or she willfully and maliciously sets fire to or burns or causes to be burned or who aids, counsels, or procures the burning of, any structure, forest land, or property.”

Elements to the Crime

According to CALCRIM 1515, in order for someone to be found guilty of arson, the prosecution must prove each element beyond a reasonable doubt:

1. Defendant set fire or burned, or counseled, helped, or caused the burning of a structure, land, or property

2. Defendant acted willfully and maliciously or recklessly

Legal Arson Defenses

• Mistaken Identification: Unfortunately some arson cases consist of poor eye-witness identification resulting from poor lighting and/or cross-racial identification.

• No Charring: Arson requires the slightest charring however slight. The act did not result in any burning which did not create any charring, then one is not guilty of arson.

• No Charring to Structure: Burning or charring to fixtures within a structure will not suffice for an arson conviction. However, an arson conviction may stand if the fixture(s) are an integral part of the structure.

• Involuntary Intoxication: Arson is a general intent crime which means that voluntary intoxication will not serve as a valid defense. However, if you were involuntary intoxicated – e.g., someone placed a substance in your non-alcoholic beverage then you may have a viable defense to arson by lacking the requisite intent or reckless conduct.

• Insanity: Often times, individuals may be delusional or lack proper understanding and/or repercussions of their actions. If so, one may have a viable defense to arson.

• Burning Personal Property: If the burning occurred with someone’s own personal property then one cannot be convicted of arson unless they intentionally burned with the intent to defraud.

• You did not have the specific intent to commit an arson and/or your conduct which resulted in the burning does not rise to the level of recklessness.


The penalties for an arson conviction differs greatly depending on a number of circumstances. If you are convicted of arson under P.C. § 451, and the burning was personal property then the sentencing range is 16, 2, or 3 years in California state prison. If you are convicted under P.C. § 451(b), arson of an inhabited dwelling, then the sentencing range is 3, 5, or 8 years in California state prison. If great bodily injury occurs as a result of the arson, then the sentencing range for an arson conviction is 5, 7, or 9 years in California state prison.

Los Angeles Arson Defense Investigation

Since arson allegations can carry a substantial amount of time in state prison, nothing short of a full defense investigation is absolutely necessary. The Law Offices of John D. Rogers has access to numerous experts as well as private investigators to further examine the evidence and seek additional evidence police officers either missed or intentionally omitted from gathering. Evidence such as video surveillance cameras from local business or residential neighbors, a full history of the alleged victim and the suspect, conduct criminal background checks on all of the prosecutor’s intended witnesses, as well as question family members and friends of the defendant to determine whether they of the type of character to commit a kidnapping crime. A critical aspect of investigating arson charges is examining how the burning occurred, a usually disputed issue among fire expert community. Moreover, whether the fire started as a result of poor wiring or intentionally set via lighter or match.

Arson Examples

Dan was in a domestic dispute with his roommate for unpaid rent owed to Dan. Dan noticed the internet cable running from the modem to his roommate’s bedroom. He initially used a pair of scissors and attempted to cut the cable but was unsuccessful. Dan then grabbed a matchbook and lite a match. Dan placed the lite match next to the wire in an attempt to stop his roommate from using free internet. The cable caught on fire and seconds later grew larger after reaching the carpet and wall. Dan quickly ran to get a bucket of water from the kitchen and poured the water on the wall and carpet stopping the fire. The damages were very small only 2 / 3 feet in circumference. A concerned neighbor called 911 after noticing smoke emitting from Dan’s apartment. When the LAPD arrived, they asked Dan what happened. Dan admitted that he was in a dispute with his roommate and lite the cable in an effort to stop his roommate from using free internet after owing Dan $1,000. The police arrest Dan for arson of an inhabited dwelling, a dangerous felony. In this case, Dan arguably did not have the intent to commit an arson, however, he harbored the intent to commit a burning. Furthermore, Dan’s actions of lighting a cable to melt the wiring could arguably be considered as reckless endangerment.

Betty was hosting a Fourth of July at her beach house in Los Angeles. She invited 30 people over to join in the fun of drinking and having a good time watching fireworks. After consuming alcohol for hours, Betty decided to lite a firework inside her front room and shoot it towards the beach. After igniting the firework she back away to watch it shoot towards the beach. Accidently, the firework tilted and shot towards her wall. After striking the wall, the wall caught on fire. A house guest attempt to put out the fire but received severe burns as a result of his attempt. Eventually the burning was put out but Betty’s wall was severely charred. In this case, Betty would be charged with arson because her act of lighting the firework inside her home with 30 guests inside could be reckless conduct. In addition, Betty could face an additional 3 years in state prison due to the fact that her house guest received severe burns as a result.

Related Offense

P.C. 594: Vandalism

Contact Us for a Free Consultation

If you have been arrested, charged, or under investigation for arson, contact Los Angeles Arson Defense Lawyer John Rogers at the Law Offices of John D. Rogers. Call (949) 625-4487 for a free confidential consultation concerning your rights and defenses.

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