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Criminal Defense

What is the Punishment for Arson?

8 min read
Francesca Toledo, J.D.

by Francesca Toledo, J.D.

Arson is a criminal charge involving fire and property damage. Depending on the specifics of how and where an incident occurred, there could be serious punishment, including extensive prison time, fines, and restitution. 

Arson can be a component of a larger crime, in which case other charges will be brought.

If you’re defending yourself against an arson charge, you can connect with a local arson criminal defense lawyer to discuss your case.

What is Arson?

Every state has definitions for the crime of arson, as does the federal government. However, in general, arson involves intentionally or maliciously setting fire to property.

Arson does not only mean burning a house or a building. It can also mean setting fire to other types of personal property, like cars and boats. In some states, it is illegal to set fire to the land, including crops or forests.

Arson can also involve setting fire to one’s own property. This often indicates fraud (perhaps to claim an insurance payout) and nevertheless endangers the surrounding community.

Under common law, arson was defined as the malicious burning of the dwelling of another. The law has evolved, and arson now includes the malicious burning of any type of property besides a home.

Elements of the Crime of Arson

The crime of arson can be broken down into several elements. In most states, the prosecution must prove all elements of the crime to get an arson conviction.

Setting the Fire

First and foremost, the offender must of course set the fire to be guilty of arson. 

The way an offender sets the fire will impact the severity of the charge, but any fire can result in an arson charge. What matters is that the offender intentionally (or maliciously, or recklessly) set the fire. The offender can use a lighter, matches, explosives, or gasoline as an accelerant.

The court also considers indirect fires the offender starts in a case. For example, the offender can set fire to a piece of land without intending for the home on the property to catch fire. If the home does burn, even though the offender had no intention of burning it, they could still face repercussions.

Property Damage

For an arson conviction, there needs to be property damage. Whether it is a building burned down, a crop left in ashes, or a car destroyed, there needs to be damage evident from the fire.

In many states, even the most minor property damage is enough to secure a conviction for arson. 


Many crimes require the element of intent, arson included. The exact details regarding intent depend on state laws.

For an individual to be convicted of arson, they must intend to start a fire. In some states, the simple act of starting a fire is enough to prove the offender had an intent. However, in other states, the prosecution must prove the offender not only intended to start the fire but also intended to cause property damage.

Some states convict offenders for recklessly starting fires. A person can recklessly start a fire, for example, by disobeying fire ordinances or lighting fireworks in a flammable area. If a person recklessly starts a fire and causes damage or injury, they would likely be charged with arson, even if they didn’t intend to start the fire.

What Type of Crime is Arson?

Crimes generally are classified as infractions, misdemeanors, or felonies. Arson can either be a misdemeanor or a felony charge, depending on the state laws and the details of the offense.

A misdemeanor is usually a less severe offense, often punishable by no more than one year in jail. With good legal representation, a first time offender can argue for alternative punishments including probation, fines, and community service.

Felonies represent more serious crimes and commonly involve violence or personal harm. A felony is usually punishable by more than one year in jail, generating more intense attention from prosecutors and law enforcement.

The type of charge an offender receives for arson rests upon various factors, including:

  • The type of property burned
  • The severity of the property damage
  • Whether anyone was injured and the extent of the injuries

Additionally, the court will determine whether the offender set a fire with the intent to commit fraud. So-called “aggravating” factors like this can trigger an upgrade in the severity of the charge brought by prosecutors.

Ultimately, whether arson is a misdemeanor or felony depends on the laws for arson in particular states and the situation itself. For example, an arson charge may be a misdemeanor if the offender sets fire to a piece of land that didn’t result in any harm, but it may be a first-degree felony if the offender starts a fire in someone’s home while they were inside. Arson charges can be quite detailed – in New York, for instance, prosecutors can choose from five different degrees of arson to apply to a case.

The way that your state handles arson charges will depend on both written law and prior cases, so it’s best to consult with a criminal defense attorney for clarification about specific circumstances. 

Punishments for the Crime of Arson

Criminal penalties for arson are based on the location in which the charge is brought, and the specific circumstances of the crime.

For example, a state charge of first-degree arson in some states can result in up to 30 years in prison. A second-degree charge, which is slightly less severe than a first-degree charge, could result in up to 15 years in prison. A federal charge for arson would result in a minimum 5 years in prison, but could go up to 40 years depending on the circumstances of the crime. A misdemeanor charge for arson can lead to jail time also, but it is usually less significant, like one to five years.

In addition to a jail sentence, punishment can involve fines and restitution. Restitution serves to compensate owners for damage caused by the fire. Some states also allow for repayment to fire departments for their expenses incurred in battling a fire.

Prosecutors can use these penalties to convince a defendant to plead guilty to another related charge, or could bring several arson charges for different incidents, with the intent of securing just one conviction.

Punishment for Arson That Results in Death

People accused of arson frequently face additional charges related to the same incident. When a fire leads to death, an offender can face separate charges like manslaughter or murder.

The primary difference between manslaughter and murder is that for manslaughter the offender did not have the intention to kill, whereas murder usuallymeans having a preconceived intent to commit the crime.

In many instances, prosecutors will dismiss some allegations in exchange for pleading guilty to other crimes. This means that a defendant may not be facing penalties for all the crimes they were initially charged with. A defense lawyer can help people facing arson charges navigate these penalties to their advantage.

Potential Defenses to Arson 

If you’re facing a criminal charge of arson, you are entitled to raise a defense. Not every potential defense is available, however, as that rests upon the specifics of your case. However, some of the most common defenses to arson involve:

Lack of Intent

Lack of intent is a common defense for arson. One of the most essential elements of arson is intent, and if the offender did not have an intent to start a fire or cause property damage, this could significantly weaken the prosecution’s case.


Similar to the lack of intent, a fire may have been started by accident. For example, the fire may have started because a homeowner accidentally left a candle burning in their home and a cat knocked it over, causing a fire.

However, an accident defense is not typically available for cases when the offender starts a fire recklessly. If the defendant is reckless, this accident defense would likely fail.

Mistaken Identity

Mistaken identity can be used as a defense when the defendant is being wrongfully accused of starting a fire. The defendant could argue they had nothing to do with the fire, and witnesses were mistaken in identifying them as the perpetrator. 

Fire Was Not Started by Arson

A fire may not have been started by arson at all, but rather by something else. Fires start for many reasons, including faulty wiring in a home or a building.

Trained fire investigators typically try to document that a fire was suspicious, but their investigative tools are limited, and they may not be experts in their field. There are many examples of forensic science proven false – from microscopic hair analysis to bloodstain patterns – in a single trial or across the country.

It’s essential to have a criminal defense attorney on your side if you’re facing serious charges like arson. They will help prepare you for the legal process, put together a defense that can work in court, and can negotiate on your behalf.

Before you go further, get in touch with a criminal lawyer. Following a phone consultation about your case, lawyers in Unbundled Legal Help’s network provide full representation for 50% less than most other attorneys.

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