This Is What You Should Know About California Arson Laws

Penal Code Section 451 [Legal Guide]

Arson is the buring of a structure, forest land or property.

In this guide, I will tell you what you must know about California’s arson laws which are codified under penal code 451 pc.

Lets take a look at the details of this law…..

What Is Considered “Arson” Under Penal Code 451 PC?

There are two California statutes pertaining to arson.

  1. Malicious Arson – California Penal Code 451
  2. Reckless Burning -Penal Code 452

In this guide I will focus on explaining Penal Code 451 which concerns the more serious one also known as “malicious arson.”1

man commiting arson

Malicious pertains to unlawfully committing the act of burning a structure, forest land or property to:

  • Injure someone
  • Defraud an insurance company
  • Damage someone else’s property out of spite, jealousy, annoyance, revenge or any other reason

Malicious arson is composed of the following (2) two elements:

1.  The defendant set fire to property2 including any kind of:

  • structure,
  • motor vehicle,
  • forest land or personal property, OR

The defendant assisted, counseled or procured the burning3 of such property4, AND,

2.  It was done so willfully and maliciously5

How Does a Prosecutor Prove Arson?

A prosecutor must prove both of the elements mentioned for an arson conviction.


Lets take a look at these terms individually to understand the legal explanation.

(1) First Element – Setting Fire

When you hear of arson, most people assume it concerns the total destruction of land or of a building by fire.

house on fire

For purposes of committing arson under California law, however, any kind of damage, no matter how minor, satisfies this element of the offense.

fire near wastebasket

What Is Considered A Structure?

A structure may any of the following:

  • Be an inhabited or uninhabitable residence,
  • Any kind of motor vehicle,
  • Tent,
  • Business or even a tunnel.

What Is Considered Property?

Property includes any kind of personal property including:

  • A stamp collection
  • Clothing6,
  • Photographs
  • Documents
  • Appliances or,
  • Furniture.

A qualification to this element is that the property that is burned must have belonged to someone other than yourself.

Can You Be Charged For Arson If You Burn Your Own Property?

You can still be charged and convicted if you did burn your own property with the intent to defraud someone or an entity such as burning down your own business for insurance proceeds.

fire near wastebasket

You can also be charged with arson by burning your own property if the fire results in injuring someone or damaging someone else’s property7.

What Is Forest Land?

Forest land refers to grass lands, wetlands, brush, trees or plains.

(2) Second Element—Willful and Malicious Intent

Malicious arson is a crime of specific intent where the requisite mental requirement is of willfulness, meaning purposeful or intentional conduct.

If prosecutors determine you did not set the fire intentionally than they will file misdemeanor reckless burning charges.

Penalties for Penal Code 451 PC – Malicious Arson

Malicious arson under PC 451 is a felony with state prison time.

The length of your sentence depends on the circumstances of the arson and what was burned.

  • 16 months, 2 or 3 years if you burned your own property but someone else’s property was damaged8
  • 2, 4 or 6 years if a non-inhabited structure or forest land was burned9
  • 3, 5 or 8 years if an inhabited building was burned10
  • 5, 7 or 9 years in state prison if someone suffered great bodily injury as a result of the arson.11

Additional Penalties Include:

  • Fine of up to $10,000, or a fine of $50,000 or twice the amount of your expected financial gain for defrauding someone or entity
  • A strike on your criminal record under California’s 3-Strikes law
  • Registration as an arson offender for life if convicted as an adult12

Sentencing Enhancements For Penal Code 451

Under penal code 451 the court can impose longer prison sentences known as enhancements if certain aggravating circumstances exist.

These aggravating circumstances include any one of the following:

  1. Having a prior felony conviction for arson under PC 451 or 452
  2. A police officer, firefighter or emergency personnel suffered great bodily injury as a result of the fire
  3. At least 2 people suffered great bodily injury because of the fire
  4. More than one structure was damaged in the fire
  5. You used a device to delay the ignition to set the fire or to accelerate it

What Is The Additional Penalty For These Enhancements?

If any of these were present, then the court can impose another 1 to 5 years in state prison to be served consecutively, which means that it is added to your sentence and is not concurrent.

Also, the court may sentence you to a maximum term if you burned the building in retaliation for some perceived wrong committed by the owner of the building or structure.

Is There A Sentencing Enhancement For Burning A House Of Worship?

You face a maximum term if you knew the building you were setting fire to was a place of worship such as a mosque, synagogue or church.

church burning

Finally, the court can impose a sentence of 10 years to life when you set the fire with the malicious intent to injure someone or damage an inhabited structure and any of the following circumstances exist:

  1. You have a prior arson conviction within the past 10 years
  2. The value of the property damaged by the fire and any other losses or costs associated with it including the cost of containing and extinguishing it was more than $5,650,000
  3. More than 5 structures were damaged

Legal Defenses For Arson

The following are some common legal defenses that may be used in arson cases.

It Was An Accident

Most defenses center around the explanation that the fire was caused by accident.

If the fire was caused by accident than there was no malicious intent on the part of the defandant and the worst you might face is reckless burning under PC 452.

The DA has to prove you had the willful intent to start the fire and will need proof of motive or corroborating testimonial or documentary evidence to convict you.

Some fires are caused unintentionally but the defendant created a high risk or possibility that a fire would either occur or damage other property or injure other persons.

Examples Include:
  • Persons who were impaired or intoxicated and allowed a campfire to burn out of control.
  • A person passed out in an apartment while smoking.

Because the individuals passed out or were too intoxicated, the argument is that they were incapable of understanding or appreciating the risk.

The Prosecution Has Insufficient Evidence

It is difficult to prove intent in starting a fire unless there is direct or circumstantial evidence.

Such evidence might include:

  • Discovering that you did computer research on how to surreptitiously start a fire.
  • The existence of a motive based on financial problems.
  • Revenge for being unjustly terminated from a job.
  • Finding containers of gasoline or accelerants in your garage.
  • Witnesses who can testify they saw you running from the scene just before the fire began.

What Is Considered Direct Evidence?

Direct evidence is someone testifying that they saw you start the fire.

What Is Circumstantial Evidence?

Circumstantial evidence is proof of a fact from which a person may reasonably infer or conclude that you committed the crime.

Such as incriminating internet searchs found on your computer.

Reasonable alternatives for certain evidence that do not point to or infer guilt must be considered by the trier of fact.

Circumstantial evidence is treated the same as direct evidence and can be powerful even though it is not direct evidence.

If there is enough circumstantial evidence and it is convincing enough, it can convict a defandant.

Immigration Consequences

A conviction under PC 451 is a serious felony and a deportable offense if you are not a US citizen. It is considered a crime of moral turpitude.

If you left the country after your conviction, you will be unable to reenter. Also, if you are a legal resident, your opportunity for naturalization is seriously compromised.

You can still seek relief from removal proceedings if you qualify for deferred action, adjustment of status or under temporary protected status.

Important Information On The Criminal Court Process

Next Steps If You Need Help

If you have been arrested and would like to learn more about how attorneys charge.

If you want to understand why its important to have an attorney represent you.

If you would like to discuss a pending case with an attorney contact the Aizman Law Firm at 818-351-9555 for a free confidential consultation.

Get Legal Help Now

Request A Free Consultation 818-351-9555 


  1. Malicious Defined: Calcrim 1501: Someone acts maliciously when he or she intentionally does a wrongful act or when he or she acts with the unlawful intent to defraud, annoy, or injure someone else. []
  2. Property Defined. In re L.T. (2002) 103 Cal.App.4th 262, 264–265 [126 Cal.Rptr.2d 778]. []
  3. People v. Haggerty (1873) 46 Cal. 354, 355; In re Jesse L. (1990) 221 Cal.App.3d 161, 166–167 [270 Cal.Rptr. 389]. []
  4. Structure, Forest Land, and Property Defined. Pen. Code, § 450 [Penal Code 450(a)“Structure” means any building, or commercial or public tent, bridge, tunnel, or powerplant][Penal Code 450(b) “Forest land” means any brush covered land, cut-over land, forest, grasslands, or woods][Penal Code 405(c) “Property” means real property or personal property, other than a structure or forest land]; see People v. Labaer (2001) 88 Cal.App.4th 289, 293–294 [105 Cal.Rptr.2d 629] []
  5. Penal Code 450(e)(Maliciously” imports a wish to vex, defraud, annoy, or injure another person, or an intent to do a wrongful act, established either by proof or presumption of law. []
  6. CALCRIM 1515 “Arson includes burning a victim’s clothing.” People v. Reese (1986) 182 Cal.App.3d 737, 739–740 [227 Cal.Rptr. 526]. []
  7. A person does not commit arson if the only thing burned is his or her own personal property, unless he or she acts with the intent to defraud, or the fire also injures someone else or someone else’s structure, forest land, or property.] CALCRIM 1515. []
  8. California Penal Code 451(d) – Arson of property is a felony punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for 16 months, two, or three years. For purposes of this paragraph, arson of property does not include one burning or causing to be burned his or her own personal property unless there is an intent to defraud or there is injury to another person or another person’s structure, forest land, or property. []
  9. California Penal Code 451(c) – Arson of a structure or forest land is a felony punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for two, four, or six years. []
  10. Penal Code 451(b) – Arson that causes an inhabited structure or inhabited property to burn is a felony punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for three, five, or eight years. []
  11. California Penal Code 451(a) – (a) Arson that causes great bodily injury is a felony punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for five, seven, or nine years. []
  12. See 15 CCR § 3653. Penal Code Section 457.1 Registrants (Arson Offenders). []

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