Every year, stories of wildfires in California dominate the news cycle. Images of flames consuming forests and hills, and sometimes even neighborhoods, flood TV screens. Sometimes these fires are the accidental result of campers and hikers making cooking fires, or by natural conditions such as California’s hot and dry climate. Other times, intentional acts of arson start them.
An arson conviction could lead to a lifetime in prison
Arson is a serious crime that carries huge legal consequences in the state of California. The legal definition of arson in California is the willful and malicious burning of a structure, property or forest. The words “willful and malicious” are essential legal terms. They mean that the prosecutor must prove that a person started the fire on purpose, or that they acted with willful disregard for the safety of others, in order to be charged with arson.
If you are convicted of arson, the penalties can be immense. You could go to prison for up to nine years, depending on a variety of factors – including whether the fire injured someone, and the type of structure burnt. The prosecutor will upgrade your charge to aggravated arson if the fire burns five or more inhabited structures. This would up your jail time to 10 years to life, with no chance of parole before at least 10 years are up.
If you are charged with arson, you have defenses available to you
Even if you were present when the fire started, that doesn’t mean that you are automatically going to go to prison. Remember, an essential element of a charge of arson is the willful and malicious intent. The prosecutor must prove that you started the fire with malicious intent in order to convict you.
This means that your attorney will be able to raise defenses on your behalf that show that you did not have the requisite mental state. For example, if the facts support it, they can argue that you lit the fire by accident, or that someone else lit the fire.
Whether the fire resulted in loss of human life or mere property damage, arson is a serious issue. Luckily, our system protects the rights of the accused, and courts assume that people are innocent until proven guilty by the prosecutor. If you have been charged with arson, you can rest assured that you have defenses available to you that your attorney can raise, in order to get you a fair trial.