Generally, arson is the willful and malicious setting of a fire to or burning, or the reckless setting fire to or burning, any structure, forest land, or property. (Penal Codes sections 451 and 452.) Penal Code section 450 defines terms such as “structure”, “forest land', “property” among other terms, and gives them very broad meanings. For example, section 450, subdivision (b) defines “forest land” as “any brush covered land, cut-over land, forest, grasslands, or woods.” “Structure” is defined as “any building, or commercial or public tent, bridge, tunnel, or powerplant.” (Penal Code section 450, subd. (a).)
Arson is a very serious crime, with serious consequences, and if you are accused you should act quickly to obtain counsel. Arson is a “strike” within the meaning of the “Three Strikes and You're Out” law. Arson in violation of Penal Code section 451, subdivisions (a) and (b) is a violent felony within the meaning of Penal Code section 667.5, subdivision (c)(10), and all felony arson is a serious felony pursuant to Penal Code section 1192.7, subdivision (c)(14).
The punishment for arson depends upon the intent with which the fire was set or the burning done, and whether certain aggravating factors or enhancements are present. For example, under section 451, arson of property is a felony punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for sixteen months, two, or three years, but arson of a structure or forest land may be punished by a term of two, four or six years. If the structure or property is inhabited, the punishment increases to three, five, or eight years. (Penal Code section 451, subd, (b).) If the arson pursuant to section 451 results in great bodily injury to any person, the punishment is five, seven, or nine years. (Penal Code section 451, subd. (a).)
Section 451.1 provides enhancements to section 451 arson for, among other things, a defendant with a prior conviction of section 451 or 452, injury to a firefighter, peace officer, or other emergency personnel, or great bodily injury to multiple victims or the burning of multiple structures. Punishment for section 452 (reckless) arson is generally a wobbler, that is, it may be charged or punished as either a misdemeanor or a felony, but it is also subject to increased punishment or enhancement when certain factors are present, similar to those identified above.
Registration with law enforcement as a convicted arsonist is required in many circumstances. (See Penal Code section 457.1.)
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