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California Penal Code 451 & 452 Arson

penal code 451 arson

California Penal Code Sections 451 and 452 address the crime of arson. It is illegal to willfully, maliciously or recklessly burn a property, forest, a piece of land or a structure, or to assist another in committing the same act. A person can also be charged with arson if he set fire at own property in an attempt to commit insurance fraud.

California Penal Code 451 Malicious Arson

The prosecutor must prove the following element to charge a person under California Penal Code Section 451 “malicious arson”

  • Defendant set fire to or burned a property, forest, a piece of land or a structure ( it is not necessary to destroy or damage the entire object, damaging even a small part is enough)
  • Defendant did so maliciously and willfully 

California Penal Code 452 Reckless Arson

The prosecutor must prove the following element to charge a person under California Penal Code Section 451 “reckless arson”

  • Defendant set fire to or burned a property, forest, a piece of land or a structure  
  • Defendant did so recklessly

The term “structure” includes not only inhabited or uninhabitable residence but also tunnels, bridges, tents and power. The term “property” includes any personal property of another person like furniture, vehicle, clothing etc.

Penal Code 452 Describes “Recklessly”

  • Defendant was conscious that his actions present a significant and unjustifiable risk of causing a fire
  • Defendant ignored that risk
  • Doing so was a gross departure from what a reasonable person would have done in a similar situation

Legal Defenses to California Penal Code 451 or 452 Arson Charges

The fire was an accident

If a person can prove that the fire started accidentally, was absolutely an unintended and went out of control, he won’t be considered guilty of these crimes. There are situation when a person unintentionally created high risk of a fire, but was unaware of the risk because was impaired or voluntarily intoxicated (was drunk or on drugs as a result of his own actions). Though the person was incapable of understanding or appreciating the risk that will not serve as a defense to California Penal Code Section reckless burning charge.

Lack of Sufficient Evidence

Most arson cases are built with only on circumstantial evidence, with no witnesses. The physical evidence does not show the person started a fire, this make the prosecutor’s case very difficult to prove. 

The fire was not the reason of arson

Before a person can be convicted of arson, the prosecution needs to prove that arson even took place. Arson is a crime which requires very sophisticated technical investigation.

Penalties for California Arson Conviction

Penalties for California arson charges vary a great deal, depending on: the nature of the burned property, the defendant’s criminal history and whether someone was injured as a result of the fire.

Penalties for Penal Code 451 Malicious Arson Conviction

Under PC 451 malicious arson is always a felony, punishable by imprisonment in the California state prison. The potential prison terms are:

  • Sixteen months, two three years for malicious arson of personal property;
  • Two, four or six years for malicious arson of forest or a structure;
  • Three, five or eight years for malicious arson if an inhabited building was burned
  • Five, seven or nine years if the arson caused great bodily injury to the victim
  • Fine of up to $10,000 to all types of malicious arson

The defendant can face an additional fine up to $50,000 or twice the amount of expected financial gain from the fire. 

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