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California Arson Law & Defense

Penal Code 451 & 452

Information on the crime of arson is found at California Penal Code Section 451 and 452. 

There are several varieties of arson charges depending on the facts that are alleged. For example, purposefully setting fire to a house is charged under a different penal code section than purposefully setting fire to a field.

At the bottom of this article there is a list of the different types of arson charges that are commonly charged in California; you will also find the corresponding possible jail or prison sentence if found guilty of any particular arson charge. The most common charge of arson in California is arson to a structure, charged under California penal code section 451(c).

To prove that the defendant is guilty of the crime of arson to a structuree (PC 451(c)), the prosecutor only has to prove that the defendant:

  • Set fire to, burned, or caused the burning of a building, land, or property
  • The defendant acted purposely and intentionally when he or she caused the fire.

Arson to a structure that is charged as PC 451(c) is classified as a felony. If found guilty of the crime of arson under PC 451(c) the defendant could face up to six years in prison.

In some cases of arson it might be possible to reduce the sentence that is usually associated with arson, or to reduce the charge of arson itself (or both).

In addition to any jail or prison sentence, criminal convictions for arson offenses can lead to other severe consequences such as: Immigration issues (non-U.S. citizens), probation, fines, lawsuits, employment loss, mandatory state registration as an arson offender, and more.

Common defenses to arson charges include insufficient evidence, alibi defense, procedural misconduct of the investigating officers, statute of limitations, insanity defense, coerced confessions, and more. 

With respect to arson charges filed under PC 451 consider the following: Almost every arson of a structure case requires a scientific analysis of the burned structure. The 'science' of arson (fire and explosions) was developed primarily by insurance companies searching for evidence of arson so that they would not have to pay out funds on for their policy holders (arson is not covered under insurance).

An entire pseudoscience of arson investigation (promoted by insurance companies) has produced little more than conflicting theories by arson investigators as to the possible presence of accelerant (used by arsonist to maintain a fast burning fire), the rate of burn, the meaning of heat burns on a piece of furniture or part of the structure, the shattering (or non-shattering) of materials during a fire, etc.

The reality is that most arson charges must be proved by the details, and the details have been obliterated by fire itself. Even cases that are supported by confessions of the alleged arsonist or have the presence of alleged 'eye witnesses' can be difficult to prove where false confessions may be shown or where eye witnesses are impeached.  

If you have been charged with arson under PC 451 or 452, contact criminal defense attorney Christopher Dorado today for a free consultation.

100% of attorney Dorado's practice is dedicated to criminal defense and our office is available 24/7 to answer all of your questions concerning California arson charges under PC 451 & 452). Call today.


Closely related crimes to arson, include:

  • Arson causing great bodily injury: Penal Code 451(a)
  • Arson of inhabited structure: Penal Code 451(b)
  • Unlawfully causing fire causing great bodily injury: Penal Code 542(a)
  • Unlawfully cause fire to an inhabited structure: Penal Code 452(b)
  • Unlawfully cause fire to structure or forest: Penal Code 452(c)
  • Attempted Arson: Penal Code 455 or 664/451

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