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Arson Law & Defense

PC 451 & 452

Information on the crimes of arson are found at penal code sections 451 and 452 (PC 451, 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. Different arson charges carry different sentences and punishments.

At the bottom of this article there is a list of the different types of arson charges that are commonly charged. You will also find the corresponding maximum jail or prison sentence that is associated with a particular arson charge.

The most common arson charge is arson to a structure, charged under penal code section 451(c) (PC 451(c)).

To prove that the defendant is guilty of the crime of arson to a structure, the prosecutor must 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.

Sentence for Arson

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

PC 451(d): Arson of property, charged as PC 451(d) is classified as a felony. If found guilty of PC 451(d) the defendant could face up to three 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).

Probation Sentence: A probation sentence is a period of supervision as opposed to a prison sentence. Only in unusual circumstances may a defendant serve a probation sentence in lieu of actual prison if convicted of PC 451(c). Also, suspended prison sentences and split prison sentences are not available for PC 451(c) (See PC 1170(h)). 

Three Strikes Sentencing: Arson charges of PC 451(c) and 451(d) are considered serious crimes (strike crimes) under California's Three Strikes Sentencing Law. Furthermore, Arson is considered a moral turpitude crime. A crime of moral turpitude means that the crime is considered to be morally wrong. Crimes of moral turpitude carry special consequences for licensed professionals and non United States citizens (See Professionals or Immigrants for more information).

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

Defense to Arson (PC 451 & 452 Crimes)

Common defenses to arson charges include: insufficient evidence, alibi defense, illegal search and seizure, statute of limitations, insanity defense, coerced confessions, mistake of fact, lack of scientific evidence, and more. 

Note: Almost every arson of a structure case requires a scientific analysis of the burned structure. The science of arson was developed primarily by insurance companies searching for evidence to prove arson so that the insurance companies would not have to pay their policy holders as arson is not covered under fire insurance.

An entire pseudoscience of arson investigation, which is promoted by insurance companies, has produced little more than conflicting theories by arson investigators and experts as to the possible presence of accelerants (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, and more.

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 or coerced confessions may be shown or where eye witnesses are unreliable.

For more information on the common defenses to PC 484e, please visit defenses.

If you have been charged with arson under PC 451(c), 451(d), or PC 452, contact our arson criminal defense attorneys today for a free consultation. Our experienced and successful criminal defense attorneys are always available to explain your rights and defense options. Call today!


Other Arson Crimes, include:

  • PC 451(a) Arson causing great bodily injury. Felony with a sentence up to 9 years in prison.
  • PC 451(b) Arson of inhabited structure. Felony with a sentence up to 8 years in prison.
  • PC 451(d) Arson of property. Felony with a sentence up to 3 years in prison.
  • PC 452(a) Unlawfully causing fire causing great bodily injury (GBI). Felony or misdemeanor, with a felony sentence up to 6 years in prison and a misdemeanor sentence up to 1 year in jail. 
  • PC 452(b) Unlawfully cause fire to an inhabited structure. Felony or misdemeanor, with a felony sentence up to 4 years in prison and a misdemeanor sentence up to 1 year in jail.
  • PC 452(c) Unlawfully cause fire to structure or forest. Felony or misdemeanor sentence, with a felony sentence up 3 years in prison and a misdemeanor sentence up to 180 days in jail.
  • PC 452(d) Unlawfully causing fire to property. Misdemeanor sentence up to 180 days in jail.
  • PC 455 & 664/451 Attempted Arson

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