Arson is commonly associated with the act of unlawfully burning down a building or structure to collect the insurance or to destroy a building for some other unlawful reason. Arson also extends to anyone who deliberately sets fire to vehicles or land.
Anyone who intentionally starts fires or causes explosions that damage a structure not of their own, purposely or recklessly place others in danger, or whose actions result in a forest fire, can also be charged with the crime of arson.
The degrees of arson depend upon the intent of the defendant, the target of the fire, whether other persons or property were put in danger, and whether payment to commit the act was involved. It is generally not a crime to set fire to your own property unless you did so to collect the insurance or the fire endangered others or another person's property.
New Jersey law specifically defines the act of arson and its applications. You can be charged with arson from the first to the fourth degree, which carry prison sentences from 18 months to 20 years.
Arson in the First Degree
Also known as “Arson for Hire”, can be charged under the following circumstances:
- The defendant paid, or offered to pay someone to deliberately start a fire or explosion, or the defendant accepted payment or agreed to accept payment for the illegal act;
- If the target of the fire or explosion was a place of public worship, the crime is of the first degree
If the act was committed to collect insurance on the damaged or
destroyed structure, then insurance fraud is typically added to the
Arson in the first degree carries a prison sentence of 10-20 years and a fine up to $200,000. If the target of the fire or explosion was a place of worship, the actor must serve a minimum term of 15 years imprisonment before being eligible for parole.
Arson in the Second Degree
Also known as “Aggravated Arson” and has been committed if the defendant:
- Purposely starts a fire or explosion on his or her own property or that of another person; and,
- Does so knowingly putting another person in danger of death or bodily injury; or,
- Intends to destroy a structure or building belonging to another person or entity; or,
- Commits the act with the intent of collecting insurance on the damaged or destroyed property and recklessly places another person in danger of death or bodily harm; or,
- Commits the act in an attempt to exempt the structure completely or partially from the zoning, building, land or other regulations of a government entity and which recklessly places another person in danger of death or bodily harm; or,
- Intentionally places a forest in danger of destruction or great harm.
A crime of the second degree carries a prison sentence of 5-10 years and a fine up to $150,000.
Further, if emergency services personnel such as firefighters are injured, a charge of aggravated assault may be included along with the aggravated arson allegation.
Arson in the Third Degree
Arson in the third degree differs from the higher offenses of this crime in that the perpetrator intentionally started a fire but only recklessly, and not purposely, placed another person in danger of death or bodily harm, or recklessly placed a structure in danger of harm or destruction. The elements are as follows:
- Purposely starts a fire or explosion on the defendant’s own property or that of another; and,
- Recklessly places another person in danger of death or bodily injury; or,
- Recklessly places a structure belonging to another person or entity in danger of damage or destruction; or,
- Has the intent to collect insurance on the structure by damaging or destroying it; or,
- Intends to exempt the structure completely or partially from any government zoning, building, land or other regulations by setting it on fire or blowing it up; or,
- Recklessly places a forest in danger of damage or destruction.
Arson in the third degree carries a prison sentence of 3-5 years and a fine of up to $15,000.
Arson in the Fourth Degree
Arson in the fourth degree applies to persons who have a legal, contractual or official duty to prevent or fight a fire and fail to do the following:
- Control or to take reasonable steps to put out a fire that is endangering someone’s life or a substantial portion of someone else’s property when he can do so without substantial risk to himself; or,
- fail to report a fire that is endangering someone’s life or a substantial portion of someone else’s property.
If arrested on an arson charge you should contact a criminal defense attorney immediately.
Do not give a statement to the police or anyone else about the facts or circumstances of the offense regardless if you feel the charges are completely unwarranted. When questioned by police or a government agent or attorney, promptly inform them that you will not make any statements and wish to only speak to or contact your own attorney.
At this point, all conversations with you must stop. Be aware, however, that the police may approach you again and ask if you would like to make a statement. You need to reiterate your intent to not make a statement and to have the services of your own attorney.
Do not talk to any inmates or other persons while in detention or jail, or make any statements on a telephone about the facts of your case as your calls can be monitored and inmates can, and will, inform the police of any statements you do make.
The Value of Legal Representation
Fires of suspicious origins are investigated by arson experts who determine the fuel source, oxygen and heat source of a fire or explosion. A criminal defense attorney will often retain the services of an expert to dispute any findings and conclusions of the government's expert witness alleging that the fire was deliberately set.
The fire investigation can be the key to any defense. An experienced arson defense lawyer can often discredit any investigation that was not performed according to established protocol.
Further, a criminal defense attorney can examine any witnesses against you and find inconsistencies in their testimony and eyewitness observations that can lead to your being charged with a lesser offense or being acquitted.
Arson is a crime that cannot be expunged pursuant to New Jersey law. In other words, an arson conviction stays on your criminal record permanently. A criminal defense attorney can try to take measures to plea bargain the charges to a lesser degree or to a different charge if a complete defense is not possible.
An arson conviction can permanently affect your ability to find suitable employment, retain your present job, obtain or keep a professional license, prevent you from attending some colleges, impair your ability to obtain credit or loans, and prohibit you from owning firearms.
If you are not a US citizen, a conviction can jeopardize your immigration status. The services of an experienced criminal defense lawyer are essential to ensure that all of your rights are protected if you are charged with this very serious crime.