Arson is the crime of intentionally, deliberately and maliciously setting fire to buildings, wildland areas, dumpsters, vehicles or other property with the intent to cause damage. It may be distinguished from other causes such as spontaneous combustion and natural wildfires. Arson often involves fires deliberately set to the property of another or to one's own property so as to collect insurance compensation.
A person who commits this crime is called an arsonist. More often than not, arsonists use accelerants (such as gasoline or kerosene) to ignite, propel, and directionalize fires.
English common law
- The malicious
- of the dwelling
- of another
- The malicious – for purposes of common law arson, "malicious" refers action creating a great risk of a burning. It is not required that the defendant acted intentionally or willfully for the purpose of burning a dwelling.
- burning – at common law charring to any part of dwelling was sufficient to satisfy this element. No significant amount of damage to the dwelling was required. On the other hand mere discoloration from smoke was insufficient. Actual damage to the material from which the structure was built is required. Damage to surface coverings such as carpets and wallpaper is insufficient. Arson was not limited to the burning of wooden structures. Any injury or damage to the structure caused by exposure to heat or flame is sufficient.
- of the dwelling – dwelling refers to a place of residence. The destruction of an unoccupied building was not considered arson, "since arson protected habitation, the burning of an unoccupied house did not constitute arson." At common law a structure did not become a residence until the first occupants had moved in and ceased to be a dwelling if the occupants abandoned the premises with no intention of resuming their residency. Dwelling includes structures and outbuildings within the curtilage. Dwellings were not limited to houses. A barn could be the subject of arson if it was occupied as a dwelling.
- of another – burning one's own dwelling does not constitute common law arson, even if the purpose was to collect insurance, because "it was generally assumed in early England that one had the legal right to destroy his own property in any manner he chose." Moreover, for purposes of common law arson, possession or occupancy rather than title determines whose dwelling the structure is. Thus a tenant who sets fire to his rented house would not be guilty of common law arson, while the landlord who set fire to a rented dwelling house would be guilty.
In many states, arson is divided into degrees, depending sometimes on the value of the property but more commonly on its use and whether the crime was committed in the day or night.
- First-degree arson – The act in which the arsonist sets fire to an occupied domain or building such as a school.
- Second-degree arson – The act in which the arsonist sets fire to an unoccupied building such as an empty barn.
- Third-degree arson – The act in which the arsonist sets fire to an abandoned building or an abandoned area of space such as a field.
Many statutes vary the degree of the crime according to the criminal intent of the accused.
In the United States, the common law elements of arson are often varied in different jurisdictions. For example, the element of "dwelling" is no longer required in most states, and arson occurs by the burning of any real property without consent or with unlawful intent. Arson is prosecuted with attention to degree of severity in the alleged offense. First degree arson generally occurs when persons are harmed or killed in the course of the fire, while second degree arson occurs when significant destruction of property occurs. While usually a felony, arson may also be prosecuted as a misdemeanor, "criminal mischief", or "destruction of property."
Burglary also occurs, if the arson involved a "breaking and entering". A person may be sentenced to death if arson occurred as a method of homicide, as was the case in California of Raymond Lee Oyler and in Texas of Cameron Todd Willingham.
In New York, arson is charged in five degrees. Arson in the first degree is a Class A-1 felony and requires the intent to burn the building with a person inside using an explosive incendiary device. It has a maximum sentence of 25 years to life.
In California, a conviction for arson of property that is not your own is a felony punishable by up to three years in state prison. Aggravated arson, which carries the most severe punishment for arson, is punishable by 10 years to life in state prison.
Some states, such as California, prosecute the lesser offense of "reckless burning" when the fire is set recklessly as opposed to willfully and maliciously. The study of the causes is the subject of fire investigation.
England and Wales, and Hong Kong
In English law, arson was a common law offence dealing with the criminal destruction of buildings by fire. The common law offence was abolished by s.11(1) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971. The 1971 Act makes no general distinction as to the mode of destruction except that s.1(3) requires that if the destruction is by fire then the offence will be charged as arson; s.4 of the Act provides a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for conviction under s.1 whether or not the offence is charged as arson. In Hong Kong, the common law offence was abolished by s 67 of the Crimes Ordinance 1971 (Part VIII of which, as amended by Crimes (Amendment) Ordinance 1972, mirrored the English Criminal Damage Act 1971). Like the English counterpart, s 63 of the 1972 Ordinance provides a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, and s 60(3) of the Ordinance requires that if the damage is by fire the offence should be charged as arson.
Scotland has no offence known as arson. Events constituting arson in English Law might be dealt with as one or more of a variety of offences such as Wilful Fire-Raising, Culpable and Reckless Conduct, Vandalism or other offences depending on the circumstances of the event. The more serious offences (in particular Wilful Fire-raising and Culpable and Reckless Conduct) can incur a sentence of life imprisonment.