Setting a building, structure, or forest land on fire deliberately or through reckless conduct will attract an arrest and serious criminal charges for arson in California. The crime of arson is charged under California Penal Code 451 or PC 452, and the courts prosecute the offense to the fullest extent of the law.

A conviction for arson can negatively affect multiple aspects of your life, even when you are a first-time offender. In addition to the lengthy prison time and fines, an arson conviction is a strike under the California Three Strikes law. This will result in an enhanced penalty for subsequent felony offenses in California.

For this reason, fighting the charges should be your priority immediately after your arrest. Hiring a skilled arson defense attorney can make a significant difference between spending years in prison and walking free after the dismissal of your charges. At Riverside Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm, we will help you understand your charges and guide you through the challenging process of building a defense against these charges in Riverside, CA.

Overview of Arson in California 

In the last decade, California has suffered several fires which resulted in the loss of lives and property damage. For this reason, California courts are harsh on defendants who face criminal arson charges. You commit the crime of arson when you deliberately or recklessly set fire to property, a structure, or a forest area. When proving your guilt under California PC 451, the prosecution must prove the following elements:

      1. You Burned Or Set Fire To A Structure, Forestland, Or Property

Burning or setting fire to something means destroying all or part of a property with fire. It is essential to understand that a simple act of wood charring may suffice under this statute. California law defines a structure as any bridge, tunnel, building, power plant, or commercial tent. On the other hand, forest land is any bush-covered land, grassland, woods, or cutover land. 

You can still face charges for arson if you burn items such as clothing belonging to another person. Unless you act intending to gain financially or cause injuries to a third party, burning your personal property will not result in arson charges.

     2. Your Actions Were Willful and Malicious

The law considers your actions willful if you deliberately burnt the property or structure. On the other hand, malice is when you do a wrongful act to annoy, injure or defraud another person.

It is essential to understand that you can still face charges under PC 452 even when your actions were not willful or malicious. PC 452 addresses reckless burning, which is a result of negligent behaviors. Reckless burning has a lower standard than willful and malicious arson, and it is established through these elements:

  • You knew that your actions had a substantial risk of causing a fire.
  • You ignored the risk.
  • Your actions indicated a gross deviation from a reasonable person's actions.

Sentencing and Punishment for Arson in California

The penalty you face after a conviction for violating arson laws varies depending on the following factors:

  1. The nature of your charges. There are two main categories of arson. Arson committed through malice is the most severe form of the offense and is charged under PC 451. The other form of arson is reckless burning resulting from negligence and is addressed under California PC 452. When you face a charge for malice arson, you risk facing a harsher penalty and more consequences than reckless burning.
  2. The nature of the property involved in the crime. A prosecutor can charge you with arson for burning various properties, including personal property, inhabited structures, public assets, or forest areas. When determining the severity of the penalty to impose, the court will look into the type of property you burned.
  3. The extent of damage and injuries from the fire. If the fire you started caused severe property damage or injuries, the court would impose a harsher penalty for arson. If the building or structure you burned was inhabited, the number of people caught up in the fire is a factor that plays a role in your conviction and punishment.
  4. Your criminal history. The prosecutors and judges in California courts are not lenient on repeat offenders. Your penalties will be severe if you have a prior conviction for arson or another serious offense.
  5. The results of your psychological evaluation. When you face an arrest and criminal charges for a serious offense like arson, the court may order that you undergo a psychological evaluation. This helps the court determine whether you have the mental capacity to form criminal intent. Additionally, your ability to comprehend the nature and consequences of your actions is determined. The punishment for this offense may be more lenient for individuals who are determined to have psychological issues.

Malicious or Willful Arson

Under California PC 451, malicious arson is a felony that attracts punishment in the form of a prison sentence. The prison term for an arson conviction varies based on the circumstances, and they include:

  • Sixteen months to three years for burning personal property.
  • A maximum of six years for arson on forest land.
  • Up to nine years in prison for arson that causes serious bodily injury to a third party.
  • Three to five years for burning an inhabited structure.

In addition to the prison sentence, you will face:

  • Up to $50,000 in fines.
  • Additional fines if you committed the crime for financial gain.
  • A strike on your record under California Three Strikes Law.

Reckless Burning

Reckless burning is a lesser form of arson and is a wobbler in California. As a misdemeanor, the crime attracts a one-year jail sentence and a maximum of $1,000 in fines. The prosecutor will charge you with a felony for reckless burning if the property you burned is forest land or a victim suffered severe injuries from the fire. As a felony, the crime is punishable by a minimum of two years in prison.

Aggravated Arson

While arson in its basic forms is serious enough, there are situations when your penalties will increase significantly, including:

  • Extreme damage resulted from the arson.
  • You used a special device to accelerate the fire or delay its ignition.
  • Multiple individuals suffered serious injuries or death from the fire.
  • The fire destroyed multiple structures.
  • A peace officer died or was injured by the fire.
  • You have a prior conviction for malice arson or reckless burning within the last ten years.
  • You set fire to a place of worship.

Any of the above aggravating circumstances in your arson case will result in an additional one to five years in prison after a conviction.

Immigration Consequences of an Arson Conviction in California

As an immigrant in the United States, facing an arrest and conviction could impact your immigration status. The crime of arson falls under crimes of moral turpitude, which is a category that is addressed by the immigration law. Therefore, a conviction under PC 451 can result in deportation or inadmissibility. Being rendered inadmissible means that if you leave the United States at any point, you cannot return.

Arson and California Three Strikes Law

Arson causing severe bodily injury or arson on the inhabited property are serious felonies. A conviction for arson under these statutes will result in a strike on your record. If you have a prior strike, this second strike means you will receive twice the maximum sentence for an arson conviction. On the other hand, if this is your third strike, you risk facing a harsher penalty.

Registration as an Arson Offender in California

If you face a conviction for arson under these circumstances, you must register as an arson offender:

  • The court found you guilty and sentenced you to a minimum of ten years in prison
  • At the time of your arson conviction, you were involved in the manufacture of fire-related weapons or materials
  • You attempted to commit the crime of arson.

You must always update law enforcement officers about your whereabouts as an arson offender. However, with guidance from your attorney, you can obtain a rehabilitation certificate which lifts the burden of registration.

Defenses Against Penal Code 451 Charges

The penalties you face after an arson conviction depend on whether the crime resulted from malice or reckless behavior. Arson will attract severe legal penalties, including jail time, fines, and a criminal record. Therefore, when you face an arrest for arson in California, you must begin the process of building a defense as soon as possible. With the guidance of a skilled defense lawyer, you can present the following defenses to PC 451 charges:

The fire was Accidental.

One of the elements that the prosecution must prove when establishing your guilt under PC 451 is that you set the fire willfully. Using this defense strategy, you can argue that you accidentally started the fire. Proving your willfulness to set the fire can be difficult for the prosecution. If the court accepts your accident defense, you can avoid felony arson charges and face a conviction for reckless burning.

Additionally, you could challenge the forensic evidence presented and claim that it was inaccurate or was collected through outdated means and investigation practices.

However, a conviction for misdemeanor arson is only possible if the prosecution can show that:

  • You knew that your actions presented an unjustifiable risk of causing a fire
  • You ignored the risk
  • Your actions were a gross deviation from how a reasonable person would act

You Lacked the Intent to Commit Arson

A prosecution will only obtain a conviction for arson when they can prove that your actions were malicious and intentional. 

As such, the prosecution must establish your knowledge about your actions and that you acted without coercion. Additionally, your illegal acts or criminal omission should be clear. However, it is vital to understand that your specific motive of engaging in the prohibited character is not necessary to obtain a conviction under PC 451.

Offer Alternative Explanations for the Fire

There are many reasons a fire could break out in a building or property, including electricity malfunction and gas leakage. When a building or forest area is burnt, the authorities will look at all angles, including arson. Forensic rulings on the cause of a fire are not always accurate. With your lawyer's guidance, you can investigate the exact cause of the fire and assert this defense in your case.

Mistaken Identity

Several reasons may cause you to be falsely identified as the perpetrator of an arson. Most cases of mistaken identity in arson cases result from wrong witness identification. This could happen if the crime occurred at night or if the person who committed the crime has similar physical features to you. Additionally, if you are spotted leaving a burning building or structure or your items are found inside, you may be mistaken for the perpetrator. If you have been mistakenly identified in an arson case, your attorney can help you convince the court of your innocence.

False Allegations

Arson attracts severe legal consequences. A person driven by anger, jealousy, or revenge can falsely accuse you of the crime. Sometimes, the actual perpetrator of the crime could attempt to pin the crime on you so they can escape the consequences of their actions. If you are a victim of false accusations, your attorney will help you uncover the real motive for the false accusation to avoid a conviction.

Involuntary Intoxication

Arson is a crime of general intent. Therefore, voluntary alcohol or drug consumption cannot help you escape liability for violating PC 451. California law emphasizes the strong relationship between intoxication and arson. However, if your intoxication was involuntary, you can use this defense to negate your intent to commit the crime. When using this defense, you must provide proof of involuntary intoxication.

Insufficient Evidence

In most arson cases, there are few witnesses to the crime, and the fire destroys most of the evidence. Therefore, the police officers and prosecutors will rely primarily on circumstantial evidence to prove your glut and secure a conviction. Although circumstantial evidence is valid for criminal trials in California, it is challenging for the prosecution to make a solid case based on circumstantial evidence alone. When there is insufficient evidence, the prosecution cannot prove your case beyond a reasonable doubt, and you can avoid the harsh consequences accompanying a conviction for arson.

Expunging a Conviction for Arson in California

If you face a conviction for arson in California, you have a right to expunge the record. An expungement is a legal proceeding that releases you from the consequences of a criminal conviction. Having an arson conviction can affect multiple aspects of your life. Therefore, you must begin expunging the record as soon as possible. An expungement of a criminal record is not automatic. You must file a petition and attend an expungement hearing.

If the court accepts your petition, they will withdraw your plea of not guilty or no contest and have your case dismissed. However, it is essential to understand that not everyone is eligible for an expungement under California PC 1203.4. Expungement is available for you if:

  • You have completed your probation successfully
  • You are not serving a prison sentence or probation for another crime
  • You did not serve time in state prison following your conviction

After a conviction expungement, employers or any other person who carries a background check on you cannot use the conviction to discriminate against you. 

Offenses Related to California PC 451

Arson is a serious offense. Some crimes are related to arson, and the prosecution can bring them up during your trial for violating PC 451, including:


California PC 602 defines trespass as a crime of entering another person's property to obstruct activities taking place or damage the property. You could be charged with trespass and arson if you enter another person's property and cause a fire. The prosecution must prove these elements of crime before you face a conviction for trespass:

You entered another person's property. Your actions were willful when you intended to carry on with the crime. However, your intention to break the law is not necessary.

  • You had a specific intention with the victim's property
  • You interfered with the property owner's rights
  • You unlawfully occupied the property

In most cases, trespass is a misdemeanor. A conviction under this statute carries the following potential penalties:

  • Up to six months in county jail. Failure to leave the property when asked to may increase your prison sentence to one year.
  • Misdemeanor probation as an alternative to jail time
  • A minimum of $1,000 in fines

If you enter another person's property and threaten to cause them serious injury, the prosecution could file felony charges against you. A felony conviction under PC 601 attracts a three-year prison sentence and felony probation.


You commit a crime of burglary when you enter a structure or locked vehicle to commit grand theft, petty theft, or any other felony offense inside. When you enter a property or building intending to commit the crime of arson, you could face an arrest and charges for burglary. Burglary is charged under California PC 459, and before a conviction, the state must prove the following elements:

  • You entered a building, structure, or locked vehicle
  • When you entered the room, you had the intention to commit a theft or a felony offense
  • You entered a commercial establishment and destroyed property worth $950 or more

Burglary is categorized into first and second degrees. First-degree burglary involves entry to a residential property. On the other hand, a second-degree burglary involves entry to any other structure that is not inhabited.

Burglary in the first degree is charged as a felony whose conviction attracts:

  • Formal probation
  • Up to six years in state prison
  • Fines that do not exceed $10,000
  • A strike under California's three-strikes law

Second-degree burglary is a wobbler. The prosecution can charge the offense as a felony or a misdemeanor depending on your criminal history and the crime you intended to commit inside the building or structure. As a felony, second-degree burglary is punishable by:

  • A prison sentence ranging from 16 months to 3 years
  • Formal probation 
  • A $10,000 fine

If you face a misdemeanor conviction for second-degree burglary, you risk facing these penalties:

  • A maximum jail sentence of one year
  • Misdemeanor probation
  • A fine not exceeding $10,000

Facing charges for both burglary and arson could be nerve-wracking. Therefore, enlisting the services of a skilled defense attorney is critical.

First Degree Murder

Under California PC 187, first-degree murder is the unlawful killing of another person or fetus with malice afterthought. When you intentionally start a fire and cause the death of another person, the prosecution could file charges for first-degree murder in addition to arson. The elements that must be clear when proving your guilt for first-degree murder include:

  • You killed another person willfully and unlawfully
  • Your actions were premeditated 

Violation of PC 187 is always charged as a felony. A conviction for this offense attracts a prison sentence of twenty-five years. If you face charges of arson and first-degree murder, seeking legal guidance is crucial.

Find a Competent Criminal Defense Lawyer Near Me

You commit the crime of arson when you willfully set fire or help a person set fire to a building, property, structure, or forest land. Individuals who face charges for arson encounter an uphill battle with the harsh laws on arson under California PC 451. A conviction for arson attracts serious legal consequences. You may spend a long time in prison and incur hefty fines. In addition to the prison time and fines, a PC 451 conviction will leave behind a permanent criminal record that is challenging to shake off.  

If you or your loved one faces charges under this statute, you must contact an experienced defense attorney to help you fight the charges. At Riverside Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm, we have the extensive knowledge and experience needed to build a solid defense against your charges and secure the best possible outcome for your case. Call us today at 951-946-6366 to discuss the details of your case.