California Penal Code 451, 452 PC

PC 451, 452 – Arson

PC 451, 452 - Arson

Arson – Table of Contents

What is Arson?

Under California Penal Code 451 PC, the legal definition of arson consists of the following elements of the crime:

  • To set fire to or burn a structure, forest land, or property; AND
  • To do so willfully and maliciously.

It is important to note that anyone who aids, counsels, or procures the burning of or the intent to burn anything can also be tried for arson.

I. Definitions of Terms

In order to understand arson, it is important to recognize what the terms stated in the definition really mean here:

Willfully and Maliciously

To act “willfully” is to commit an act willingly or on purpose, regardless of whether or not you knew what you were doing.

To act “maliciously” means to intentionally commit a wrongful act while wishing to vex, defraud, annoy, or injure another person.

To set fire to or burn

When you damage or destroy something with fire, you can be charged for Arson CA Penal Code 451, 452. Whether it is an entire building or a small door in the building, anything that is set on fire counts as being destroyed by fire.

Structure, Forest Land, Property

A “structure” is any building, commercial or public, as well as tents, bridges, tunnels, or power plants.
“Forest Land” means any brush-covered land, cut-over land, forest land, grasslands, or woods.

“Property” can either be real property or personal property that is not a structure or forest land, such as furniture, cars, boats, clothing.

Different types of Arson CA Penal Code 451, 452

In the state of California, arson can be categorized into varying specific types of arson California Penal Code 451, 452 crimes.

  1. Malicious

Under CA PC 451, a person can only be found guilty of “malicious arson” if the prosecutor can prove the following:

  • You set fire to or burn a structure, forest land, or property; AND
  • You did so maliciously and willfully.

If the suspect did not have this intent, then he/she may be charged instead with—or may be able to plea bargain down to—“reckless arson.”

Example: Diego is constantly bullied at school. Out of anger and resentment, he decides to burn down his high school building at night (after everyone has left). He sets the fire, but due to his lack of experience in sustaining fires, it eventually dies and the only piece of property that is damaged by the time the fire goes out is the carpet in a small classroom.

It is clear that Diego has committed arson—malicious arson, to be exact—even though most of the entire school property is still perfectly intact and undamaged.

  1. Aggravated

“Aggravated Arson” is an additional allegation to the crime of arson. Under CA PC 451.5, any person who commits arson deliberately, with premeditation, and with the intent to cause injury to someone else or the intent to cause damage to property in order to injure another person is guilty of aggravated arson if any of the following aggravating factors exists:

  1. The defendant has been previously convicted of arson within the past 10 years;
  2. The fire caused property damage and other losses in excess of seven million dollars ($7,000,000); OR if
  3. The fire caused damage to, or the destruction of, five or more inhabited structures
  1. Reckless

This type of arson occurs when someone unlawfully, or “recklessly”, sets fire to a structure, forest-land, or property. For the purposes of PC 452, acting “recklessly” means:

  1. You are aware of your actions and that they may present risk of causing a fire,
  2. You ignore that risk, and
  3. Doing so is unlawful and unusual compared to how a reasonable person would act differently given the same situation.

It is important to note that acting “recklessly” is not equivalent to acting carelessly or negligently. Thus, accidents do happen, and that’s okay as that doesn’t make a person guilty of reckless. But behaving with a complete disregard for safety may constitute recklessness.

Example: You throw a lit cigarette into a bush and it consequently catches on fire. You are well aware that you A) shouldn’t have littered, and B) shouldn’t have tossed a burning cigarette anywhere without butting it out first.

Penalties for PC 451, 452

In California, each type of arson has its own set of consequences, depending on factors such as:

  • Which type of arson you are convicted of,
  • The nature of the property that was burned and the damages,
  • Whether any people were injured, and
  • Your criminal history.

I. Malicious – Penal Code 451

Willful or malicious arson is always a felony under California law. Depending on where the arson was committed, the potential prison terms for this felony include:

  • Personal property – 16 months, two years or three years;
  • Structure or forest land – Two, four, or six years;
  • Inhabited structure/property – Three, five, or eight years; and
  • Great Bodily Injury – Five, seven, or nine years.

In addition to the prison sentencing, an arson felon may face further punishment of up to $50,000 in fines if the crime was not committed for any pecuniary gain. If the prosecutor is able to prove that financial gain was either a motive or actually distributed to the felon, then twice the amount of the actual or anticipated gain may be charged against the defendant.

Lastly, a malicious arson conviction is deemed a “strike” on one’s criminal record under California’s Three Strikes Law.

II. Reckless – Penal Code 452

Considered as a “wobbler,” reckless arson can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the circumstances. The potential sentences for the different types of reckless arson are:

  • Great bodily injury is punishable by a misdemeanor imprisonment in county jail for up to one (1) year, or by a felony imprisonment in state prison for two, four, or six years, and/or by a fine.
  • Inhabited structure/property is punishable by a misdemeanor imprisonment in county jail for up to one (1) year, or by a felony imprisonment for two, three or four years, and/or by a fine.
  • A structure or forest land is punishable by a misdemeanor imprisonment in county jail for up to six months, or by a felony imprisonment in state prison for 16 months, two or three years, and/or by a fine.
  • Personal property is punishable by a misdemeanor imprisonment in county jail for up to six months and/or a fine of up to $1,000.

III. Aggravated – Penal Code

Under California law, an arsonist faces an additional and consecutive sentence of one, two, or three-years in state prison if any of the following circumstances exist:

  1. The defendant has a prior conviction for malicious or reckless arson within the past ten years;
  2. A firefighter, peace officer, or other emergency personnel suffered Great Bodily Injury as a result;
  3. Two or more people suffer from Great Bodily Injury as a result; or
  4. Multiple structures were burned.

However, if the prosecutor can prove that you committed arson

  1. intending to injure other people or damage an inhabited structure, forest land,
  2. while you had a prior arson conviction within the past ten years,
  3. the fire damaged property and other losses in excess of seven million dollars, AND
  4. damaged five or more inhabited structures,

Then you face a state prison sentence of ten years to life.

Furthermore, there are other circumstantial “aggravating factors” that can determine a prolonged sentence, such as arson being expressed in the form of a “hate crime.”

Example: You set fire to your apartment because your landlord is evicting you. Or you set fire to a religiously affiliated structure of worship out of hate.

IV. Registration as a Convicted California Arson Offender

In addition to the corresponding penalties, anyone who is convicted of

  • Malicious arson or attempted malicious arson,
  • Aggravated arson resulting in a minimum ten-year prison sentence, arson in the state of California is required to register as a California convicted arson offender
  • Possessing, manufacturing, or disposing of any flammable/combustible material or of any incendiary device in connection with the arson charge

in the state of California will be required to register as a California convicted arson offender.

Thus, similar to an individual registered as a sex offender, the convicted arsonist must routinely update his/her local law enforcement agency regarding to his/her whereabouts.

Since November 30, 1994, those who are convicted as adults will be registered for life. However, the duration for registration may also depend on the age of the arsonist at the time of the conviction as well as the date.

There are separate misdemeanor offenses of an arsonist failing to properly register that may lead to a jail sentence of over 90 days and up to 1 year.

Legal Defenses to Arson California Penal Code 451, 452

An experienced attorney should present the most appropriate defenses to any arson crime charge for you due to the strict and severe penalties that may result. In any case, there are several different ways one can alleviate such offenses.

The fire was an accident

If you can prove that the fire was unintentional and the result of an accident, then you cannot be found guilty of arson. In order for the prosecution to convict you of arson or reckless burning, they must prove that you acted maliciously or recklessly.

You were falsely accused, wrongfully arrested, or mistakenly identified

If someone else committed the arson and you were blamed, or if eyewitnesses have mistakenly named you as the culprit of another person’s arson actions, then you can make the claim that you weren’t behind the arson. Or if law enforcement arrests you without a probable cause for arrest, then you can make the claim that there was an unlawful arrest.

Insufficient evidence

Due to the nature of the process of arson, most prosecutors understand that arson can only reasonably be committed by deliberate preparation often times involving the use of some fire-starting device. This “circumstantial evidence” is necessary to build proof against the defendant, and without much circumstantial evidence, it would be difficult for the prosecutor to make his/her case.

A fire is not always started by arson

As stated before, arson requires a very specific plan of action and must be thoroughly investigated to determine whether or not the fire was indeed started by arson. As special forensic units are responsible for finding conclusions, they may not always be right in their findings.


How is Arson Investigated?

We Want to Help

If you or a loved one is being charged with Arson California Penal Code 451, 452, we invite you to contact us immediately for a free case review. Schedule an appointment to meet with us in person, or feel free to submit an evaluation online and we will get in contact with you ASAP. We can provide a free consultation in our office, or by phone. Our experienced and assiduous Los Angeles Criminal Defense Lawyers will be sure to fight until the end to reduce or drop your charges completely.

Call Us for a FREE Case Review: 310-274-6529

Contact Us:         
Esfandi Law Group QR Code
Esfandi Law Group
Lara S.
June 4, 2018
Seppi had my case reduced to just an infraction, and thanks to him I was able to keep my job. Jorge was extremely helpful too, the reason I went with this law firm. Overall pleased.

How to Win Your Case

We cannot stress enough that you read, understand and follow these 10 basic rules if you are criminally charged or under investigation:

  1. Don’t ever talk to the police
  2. Do not discuss your case with anyone
  3. Everything you tell your lawyer is confidential
  4. Tell police you need to contact your attorney
  5. Never consent to any search by the police
  6. If the police knock on your door, don't answer!
  7. Realize the consequences of a criminal conviction
  8. Your lawyer (not you) will contact any witnesses
  9. Information on your cell phone is evidence
  10. Early Intervention is the key

Get a Free Consultation

    Free Consultation Form