Is Arson Always a Felony?

By George Khoury, Esq. on November 08, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

One of the hottest areas of criminal law, literally, is arson. Arson is defined as willfully, wrongfully, and unjustifiably setting property on fire, often for the purpose of committing fraud. However, like a fire, in most states, arson is measured in degrees, meaning that not all acts of arson are punished equally.

Generally, if a person is injured, or the value of the property destroyed exceeds a few hundred dollars, arson will be charged as a felony. However, because of the deadly potential of fire, if a person dies, a defendant could be facing felony murder charges on top of felony arson charges.

Can You Burn Your Own Property

Frequently, arson is associated with insurance fraud, which is a serious felony. Insurance fraud occurs when individuals purchase insurance on their homes, vehicles, businesses, or anything insurable, and burn those things to the ground for the insurance money.

So long as there is no risk of damaging another person's property or causing injury, and you don't file an insurance claim, you can burn your own property to your heart's content. However, if you do choose to go on a burning frenzy, you will want to really make sure that there is no risk of harm to anyone else, and that you own the property you want to burn, as criminal liability for arson is very serious. Additionally, you will want to check state and local ordinances on burning as many states may prohibit burning certain things for emissions, health or safety reasons.

Degrees of Arson

Criminal law varies from state to state, but generally, the severity of arson charges correspond to the amount of destruction and the severity of any injuries, if any. For example, burning another person's copy of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 in an empty parking lot will likely be charged as misdemeanor arson, if that charge even exists (not many states have misdemeanor arson). In states that don't have misdemeanor arson, charges will often just be called something else like criminal mischief, or reckless burning. Additionally, when an arson attempt fails, a defendant could be facing attempted arson charges.

When there are elements of insurance fraud, or if people were, or could have been, injured, it is likely that felony arson charges will be brought. The reason arson is typically charged as a felony is because of the extreme risk of injury posed by fire, as well as the high frequency with which it is coupled with insurance fraud.

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