The term “arson” as defined in 18 USCS § 3559 means malicious damage or destruction of any building, inhabited structure, vehicle, vessel, or real property by means of fire or explosive device. Arson is a crime against property.
Crimes against property include: i) crimes in which property is destroyed; and ii) crimes in which property is stolen or taken against the owner’s will. Crimes like arson and vandalism come under the former category. Vandalism is the willful destruction of or damage to another person’s property; whereas, arson is the deliberate and malicious burning of structures or wild land areas. Therefore, to constitute the offense of arson, the accused must intend to burn a building or other structure and the conduct of the accused must be malicious and not accidental. Malice is not limited to actions done with ill will. Intentional or outrageously reckless conduct is sufficient to constitute malice.
The necessary elements needed to prove arson are:
- evidence of a burning; and
- a criminal act which causes the fire.
Motive is not an essential element of arson. Elements constituting the offense of arson, and punishment for the offense vary by state. In many states there are different degrees of arson. For example, in New York there are five degrees of arson. According to the New York penal law, the different degrees of arson are:
1. Arson in the fifth degree.
According to § 150.01 of the New York penal law, a person is guilty of arson in the fifth degree when s/he intentionally damages another person’s property by intentionally starting a fire or causing an explosion without the owner’s consent. Arson in the fifth degree is a class A misdemeanor.
2. Arson in the fourth degree.
According to § 150.05 of the New York penal law, arson in the fourth degree is a class E felony. A person is guilty of arson in the fourth degree when s/he recklessly damages a building or motor vehicle of another by intentionally starting a fire or causing an explosion.
3. Arson in the third degree.
Arson in the third degree is a class C felony. According to § 150.10 of the New York penal law, a person is guilty of arson in the third degree when s/heintentionally damages a building or motor vehicle by starting a fire or causing an explosion.
4. Arson in the second degree.
According to § 150.15 of the New York penal law, a person is guilty of arson in the second degree when s/he intentionally damages a building or motor vehicle by starting a fire, with the knowledge that another person who is not a participant in the crime is either present in the building/motor vehicle at the time, or there is a reasonable possibility for any person to be in the building at the time. Arson in the second degree is a class B felony.
5. Arson in the first degree.
Arson in the first degree is a class A-I felony and carries stiffer penalties. According to § 150.20 of the New York penal law, a person is guilty of arson in the first degree when s/he willfully damages a building or motor vehicle by causing an explosion or a fire and when such explosion or fire is: i) caused by an explosive device thrown or placed near the building/ motor vehicle or by an explosive; or when such explosion either causes serious physical injury to a person other than the offender; or the offender performed the act for financial gains; and ii) a person who was not a participant in the crime was present in the building or motor vehicle at the time; and iii) offender caused the explosion reasonably expecting other person’s presence.