In California, there are two main statutes criminalizing conduct that results in a fire. An individual may be prosecuted for committing the crime of arson or the crime of recklessly causing a fire. A person is guilty of arson when he or she willfully and maliciously sets a fire, burns, or assists another person in burning any structure, forest, land, or property. The offense of unlawfully causing a fire, on the other hand, covers reckless accidents or unintentional fires, which are committed by a person who consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that his or her act will set fire to forest, land, or other property. Thus, the key element of arson is that the burning must be intentional and not simply accidental.
Nonetheless, California courts disagreed on whether arson required additional showing that an individual must actually intend to cause a fire or commit another wrongful or harmful act associated with such conduct. For example, an individual may light a firecracker during the Fourth of July celebration without intending to cause a fire to the surrounding area. Recently, however, the California Supreme Court has ruled that an intentional act of throwing that firecracker into dry brush will be sufficient to establish the requisite mental state for arson even though the person did not intend to cause the fire. The court reasoned that under such circumstances the burning of dry brush is the direct and probable consequence of throwing the firecracker. Thus, an individual’s intent to do a wrongful act will be presumed or implied from his or her deliberate and intentional ignition of a firecracker.
As a result, the prosecution is no longer required to prove that persons knew or were subjectively aware that the fire would be the probable consequence of their acts. Rather, individuals may be guilty of arson if they act with awareness of facts that would lead a reasonable person to realize that the direct, natural, and highly probable consequence of their actions would result in burning of a structure or land. Most notable examples of such conduct include throwing a firecracker into dry brush resulting in the burning of the hillside, or lighting the weeds in a cleared area in a canyon that has heavy brush, trees, and grass.
The San Diego Law Office of Domenic J. Lombardo is dedicated to defending criminal charges in state, federal, and county courts throughout San Diego. For a free consultation, contact us at (619) 232-5122, or: [email protected].
For more information on California felony and misdemeanor offenses, see the following:
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