Unlawfully Causing Fire - California Penal Code PC 452

Posted by Raoul Severo | Oct 22, 2020 | 0 Comments

California is infamous for its highly destructive wildfires. However, not all of them have naturally occurred. In fact, the most recent one was apparently caused by a gender reveal party, which left more than 10,000 acres of land to be completely decimated by the fire. The smoke from the massive wildfire also reached states that are thousands of miles away, and the internet was filled with photos showcasing a bloody sky that felt almost post-apocalyptic. Also, who would forget the time Hollywood celebrities were fleeing their million-dollar mansions during the 2018 Californian wildfire? Popular stars such as Miley Cyrus, Gerard Butler, Will Smith, and Kim Kardashian all shared their experiences on various social media platforms as the rest of the world looks on with grief.

While most people agree that the state's conditions are the main culprit for the devastating wildfires, some believe that it is man-made. Indeed, the concept of people intentionally burning down their property is not unheard of. In an attempt to lessen any further damage or loss, California imposed two strict arson laws, one of which is California Penal Code PC 452. Under this law, it is illegal for anyone to burn any structure, forest land, or property. Furthermore, the following elements must be present for the person to be convicted guilty:

  • The defendant was either directly or partially responsible for burning a structure, forest land, or property;
  • The defendant acted recklessly. That is, the person is fully aware of the potential risks yet chooses to ignore these dangers wherein a reasonable person would have done otherwise. 

Of course, the law also recognizes that bizarre or special situations may occur. For this reason, PC 452 encompasses the following conditions and exemptions:

  • A person is not guilty of unlawful burning if the fire only affected his/her own personal property;
  • A person is not guilty of unlawful burning if the incident emerged from true accidents, such as forgetting to turn off the gas stove;
  • A person is guilty of unlawful burning if the fire was deliberately conducted for fraudulent reasons; and
  • A person is guilty of unlawful burning if the fire burns or injures other entities.

Take note that the key element in this crime is not the intention, but the awareness of the risks. For example, let's say you go out on a camping trip with your girlfriend. After long hours of walking and trekking, you decide to have a quick break by smoking a cigarette. A couple of minutes later, your girlfriend calls for your help. You didn't want to put her health in danger by smoking near her so you throw the cigarette into a dry bush. You did this despite knowing that the cigarette is still burning and the bush is highly flammable. Even if you did not really intend to cause a fire, your recklessness may lead to a charge under PC 452.

As mentioned earlier, California has another law for a different type of arson, which is covered in California Penal Code PC 451. This encompasses situations that involve malicious intent; hence why it is termed malicious arson. We have extensively discussed this law in a different article.

Penalties for Unlawful and Reckless Burning

Any individual who is charged for recklessly and unlawfully setting an establishment or property on fire may either face a misdemeanor or a felony conviction. Furthermore, the decision of the court will mostly depend on the circumstances of your case.

If the defendant recklessly caused a fire to a structure or forest land, the consequences will be:

  • Misdemeanor: Up to 6 months in county jail and/or a fine
  • Felony: 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years in state prison

If the defendant recklessly caused a fire to an inhabited property, the consequences will be:

  • Misdemeanor: Up to 1 year in county jail and/or a fine
  • Felony: 2 years, 3 years, or 4 years in state prison

Finally, if the defendant recklessly caused a fire that causes great bodily injury to another individual, the consequences will be:

  • Misdemeanor: Up to 1 year in county jail and/or a fine
  • Felony: 2 years, 4 years, or 6 years in state prison

Fight an Unlawful Reckless Burning Charge

If you are currently facing a lawsuit for allegedly recklessly burning a property, it is highly recommended to challenge this charge with the help of a professional criminal defense lawyer. Remember, the punishments for an actual conviction of this case will be very serious and can negatively impact your quality of life for the next years. An experienced defense attorney will help you increase your chances of winning the case.

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