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Facing Criminal Charges For Arson? The Sooner You Act, the Stronger Your Defense Will Be. 

Penal Code 451 PC is the California statute that defines the crime of arson. This section makes it a felony for a person willfully and maliciously to set fire to or burn any structure, forest land, or property. A conviction carries a sentence of up to 9 years in state prison.

Note that this code section is one of two California arson laws. The other is Penal Code 452 PC, “Reckless Burning.” PC 451 states that “a person is guilty of arson when he or she willfully and maliciously sets fire to or burns or causes to be burned or who aids, counsels, or procures the burning of, any structure, forest land, or property.”



  • Setting fire to someone else's car as an act of revenge.

  • Causing a forest fire by intentionally throwing a lit cigarette into dry grass and branches (despite posted signs Warning not to do so).

  • Setting fire to a restaurant in order to collect insurance money.


A defendant can use a Legal Defense to challenge an arson charge. A few common defenses are:

  • No willful act,

  • Fire not started by arson, and/or

  • No intent to defraud (for arson of personal property).


A violation of this code section is charged as a Felony. This is opposed to a Misdemeanor or an Infraction.

The maximum punishment for the offense is custody in state prison for up to nine years.

Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:




Penal Code 451 PC is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to set fire to any:

  • Structure,

  • Forest land, or

  • Property

A Prosecutor Must Prove The Following To Convict A Person Under This Law:

  1. The defendant set fire to or burned, or caused the burning of a structure, forest land, or property, and

  2. he Acted Willfully and Maliciously.


To set fire to or burn means to damage or destroy with fire either all or part of something, no matter how small the part. The simple charring of wood is sufficient evidence of a fire or burn.


A defendant can raise a legal defense to try and beat an arson charge:

Three Common Defenses Are:

  1. No willful act,

  2. Fire not started by arson, and/or

  3. No intent to defraud.


Fire Not Started By Arson

It is always a defense for a defendant to show that a fire was started by something else other than arson. Some common causes of fires include:

  • Harsh weather or lightning,

  • Faulty or old wiring,

  • Cooking and heating equipment, and

  • smoking.

An accused can try to show his innocence by showing that one of the above caused a fire, and not his own acts.

No Intent To Defraud

As to arson of property, recall that a person cannot be guilty of burning his own personal property unless:

  • The burning was done with an intent to defraud, or

  • Someone was injured in the building.


One defense, therefore, to arson of personal property is for the accused to show that there was no intent to defraud. A person intends to commit fraud when he tries to deceive or trick another person. Example: Jerome is not guilty of arson if his own home partially burnt down because of a spark from his fireplace. This is an accident as opposed an intent to defraud. He could be charged with arson, though, if he intentionally set fire to his home for insurance reasons. Here, there is an intent to defraud the insurer.

What Are The Penalties?

A violation of Penal Code 451 is charged as a felony in California.

The specific punishment for the offense depends on:

  • The type of property that was burned, and

  • Whether or not someone suffered a Burn Injury.

The potential state prison terms for willful/malicious arson are:

  • 16 months, two years, or three years for malicious arson of personal property,

  • Two, four, or six years for malicious arson of a structure or forest land,

  • Three, five, or eight years for malicious arson that causes an inhabited structure or inhabited property to burn, and

  • Five, seven, or nine years for arson that causes Great Bodily Injury.

Are There Immigration Consequences?

An Arson Conviction Will Have Have Negative Immigration Consequences.

United States Immigration Law Says That Certain Kinds of Criminal Convictions Can Lead To:

A category of “deportable” or “inadmissible” crimes includescrimes of moral turpitude.”


California law states that arson is in fact a crime of moral turpitude. This means an arson conviction can lead to an immigrant being deported or labeled as inadmissible.

Can A Person Get A Conviction Expunged?

A Person Convicted Of This Crime Is Entitled To An Expungement Provided That He/She:

  1. Successfully completes probation, or

  2. Completes a jail term (whichever is relevant).

If a party violates a probation term, he could still possibly get the offense expunged. This, though, would be in the judge's discretion.


Under Penal Code 1203.4, an expungement releases an individual from virtually "all penalties and disabilities" arising out of the conviction.

Does A Conviction Affect Gun Rights?

A conviction under 451 PC will have a negative effect on the convicted party's gun rights.

According to California law, convicted felons are prohibited from acquiring or possessing a gun in California.

Since arson is charged as a felony, a conviction of this crime will result in the defendant losing his rights to own and possess a gun.



Our criminal lawyer will give you a FREE initial meeting to discuss your case and recommend a course of action. Even one hour talking to a true professional can change the way you view your case. Don’t face an  Arson Charge without representation. We at Monterey Peninsula Law Inc. are here to help.


Call Us For Your Free Consultation Today!

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