Criminal Law

What Is Arson?

By Jessica Gillespie, Legal Researcher and Editor
Arson is the intentional or reckless act of burning and damaging property.

While each state has its own definition of arson, the crime essentially involves intentionally and maliciously burning someone else’s property. Under the traditional definition, the person setting the fire must mean to start it with the knowledge that property damage is likely to result. Someone can commit arson by setting fire to a building, personal property, or even land.

For an arson conviction, the fire must result in some type of damage, although the damage need not be extensive. In most states, even slight property damage can lead to an arson conviction.

It’s often not a crime to accidentally start a fire or to burn one’s own property. On the other hand, in many states, burning property that you own with the goal of collecting on an insurance policy is arson. And, in some states, recklessly starting a fire that damages property can result in an arson conviction.

Intentionally or recklessly starting a fire can also lead to convictions for other crimes. For example, a person who starts a fire that results in a death could be convicted of arson and murder. (There’s a good chance that a defendant in this situation could be sentenced for only one of the two crimes, though.)

In some states, arson can be a misdemeanor or a felony—in others, the offense is always a felony. Most states divide arson crimes into degrees of severity, depending on factors such as risk of injury or type of property burned. Misdemeanor arson convictions can result in jail time and thousands of dollars in fines, while a conviction for felony arson can lead to a lengthy prison sentence and a fine in excess of $10,000.

To learn about the arson laws and penalties in your area, consult an experienced criminal defense attorney.

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