Arson is a serious criminal offense. As such, it can have serious implications. It is vital to involve a qualified criminal defense lawyer in the case as soon as possible in order to avoid serious penalties. A criminal defense lawyer can help explain the charges against a defendant.
Where Arson Charges Are Filed
Arson cases may be filed in federal court or state court. They may be filed at different degrees, with first degree being the most serious.
Elements of Arson
The state or federal law specifies the elements that the prosecution must establish in order to successfully convict the defendant. Arson typically involves the intentionally setting fire to certain property, such as a home or dwelling. However, arson may involve setting fire to forest land, an automobile or personal property. It may include setting fire to someone else’s property or one’s own property for financial gain. There is typically a certain mental state written into the criminal action, such as willfully or maliciously. Alternatively, it may involve fraudulent intent such as committing insurance fraud to collect on the proceeds of insured property.
Degrees of Arson
A number of states recognize different degrees for this crime. The degrees are often different based on different factors like whether anyone was in the building at the time the crime was committed and whether insurance fraud was involved in the case. For example, setting fire to a building that is occupied is likely to be considered a more serious crime than setting fire to an abandoned building in the countryside. In most situations, arson is charged as a felony due to the high probability of causing injury or death.
In many cases, arson is committed in conjunction with insurance fraud. Someone who insures certain property and then sets fire to it may hope to receive the insurance proceeds from the fire. This is often done when the value of the property is much lower than the insured amount. However, individuals who commit arson to collect insurance proceeds may be charged with multiple crimes, making it even more important to quickly seek competent legal assistance.
Punishments for Arson
The type of punishment that a person receives is often directly aligned with the degree of arson that he or she is charged with. Less serious crimes may result in minor punishments such as a short jail stay or probation. Major arson cases that resulted in death may end in the death penalty. Courts handle this charge and the resulting punishments differently. For example, if the fire was set to a family home, the punishment will likely be much stricter than if it was set to an abandoned building in a rural area. If the fire causes additional fires to adjacent buildings, it is likely to result in a stricter punishment. It is not uncommon for arson cases involving insurance fraud to result in four-year prison sentences in some states.
Arson cases are often investigated in a different manner than many other crimes. Successfully investigating a case of this nature requires a better scientific knowledge of how fires react. Locating the point of origin is an important aspect of the investigation. Similarly, lab results that show what agents were used to create the fire are also important. It is not uncommon for an arson case to be investigated for a number of months before someone is charged with the crime. It is also important that law enforcement officers look at potential motives of why someone would intentionally cause such damage. Due to this, homeowners are often the first suspects when there is a fire because they may gain from the destruction. However, sometimes arson is committed to cover up another crime, such as murder.
Due to the reliance on expert testimony, it is important to hire a criminal defense lawyer who has knowledge of arson cases and the resources to retain his or her own expert rebuttal witness. Sometimes law enforcement will have a fire marshal prepare a report that says that fire patterns and the detection of certain liquids like gasoline indicate that the fire was intentionally set.
However, many cases are really the result of an accidental fire, so it is important that this counterargument is raised in an arson case.
An experienced lawyer can cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses to challenge whether conclusions were unproven or to demonstrate that proper scientific methods were not followed in the investigation to support his or her client’s case.