Last updated

The remains of Kyoto Animation Studio 1 after being set alight by an arsonist. Kyoto animation arson attack 1 20190721.jpg
The remains of Kyoto Animation Studio 1 after being set alight by an arsonist.

Arson is a crime of willfully and maliciously setting fire to or charring property. [1] Though the act typically involves buildings, the term arson can also refer to the intentional burning of other things, such as motor vehicles, watercraft, or forests. [1] The crime is typically classified as a felony, with instances involving a greater degree of risk to human life or property carrying a stricter penalty. [1] A common motive for arson is to commit insurance fraud. [1] [2] [3] In such cases, a person destroys their own property by burning it and then lies about the cause in order to collect against their insurance policy. [4]


A person who commits arson is referred to as an arsonist. Arsonists normally use an accelerant (such as gasoline or kerosene) to ignite, propel and directionalize fires, and the detection and identification of ignitable liquid residues (ILRs) is an important part of fire investigations. [5] Pyromania is an impulse control disorder characterized by the pathological setting of fires. [6] Most acts of arson are not committed by pyromaniacs. [6]

Notable cases

Julio González, the perpetrator behind the Happy Land Fire killed 87 in 1990, likely as revenge against his ex-girlfriend; John Leonard Orr, the cause of roughly 2,000 Los Angeles fires, who himself was arson investigator; and Raymond Lee Oyler, the cause of 24 fires and $9,000,000 in damages.


The term derives from Law French arsoun (late 13th century), from Old French arsion, from Late Latin arsionem "a burning," from the verb ardere, "to burn." [7] [8] [9]

The Old English term was bærnet, lit. "burning"; and Edward Coke has indictment of burning (1640). Arsonist is from 1864. [10]

English common law

Historically, the common law crime of arson had four elements:

  1. The malicious
  2. burning
  3. of the dwelling
  4. of another [11]
For purposes of common law arson, "malicious" refers to action creating a great risk of a burning.
At common law charring to any part of dwelling was sufficient to satisfy this element. No significant amount of damage to the dwelling was required. Any injury or damage to the structure caused by exposure to heat or flame is sufficient.
Of the dwelling
'Dwelling' refers to a place of residence. The destruction of an unoccupied building was not considered arson: "... since arson protected habitation, the burning of an unoccupied house did not constitute arson." At common law a structure did not become a residence until the first occupants had moved in, and ceased to be a dwelling if the occupants abandoned the premises with no intention of resuming their residency. [12] Dwelling includes structures and outbuildings within the curtilage. [13] Dwellings were not limited to houses. A barn could be the subject of arson if occupied as a dwelling.
Of another
Burning one's own dwelling does not constitute common law arson, even if the purpose was to collect insurance, because "it was generally assumed in early England that one had the legal right to destroy his own property in any manner he chose". [14] Moreover, for purposes of common law arson, possession or occupancy rather than title determines whose dwelling the structure is. [13] Thus a tenant who sets fire to his rented house would not be guilty of common law arson, [13] while the landlord who set fire to a rented dwelling house would be guilty.


Many U.S. state legal systems and the legal systems of several other countries divide arson into degrees, depending sometimes on the value of the property but more commonly on its use and whether the crime was committed in the day or night.

Many statutes vary the degree of the crime according to the criminal intent of the accused. Some US states use other degrees of arson, such as "fourth" and "fifth" degree, [15] while some states do not categorize arson by any degree. For example, in the state of Tennessee, arson is categorized as "arson" and "aggravated arson".

United States

A U.S. World War II era arson poster THE SABOTEUR'S FAVORITE WEAPON IS ARSON - NARA - 515637.jpg
A U.S. World War II era arson poster

In the United States, the common law elements of arson are often varied in different jurisdictions. For example, the element of "dwelling" is no longer required in most states, and arson occurs by the burning of any real property without consent or with unlawful intent. [16] Arson is prosecuted with attention to degree of severity [17] in the alleged offense. First degree arson [18] generally occurs when people are harmed or killed in the course of the fire, while second degree arson occurs when significant destruction of property occurs. [19] While usually a felony, arson may also be prosecuted as a misdemeanor, [20] "criminal mischief", or "destruction of property." [21]

Burglary also occurs, if the arson involved a "breaking and entering". [22] A person may be sentenced to death if arson occurred as a method of homicide, as was the case in California of Raymond Lee Oyler and in Texas of Cameron Todd Willingham.

In New York, arson is charged in five degrees. Arson in the first degree is a Class A-1 felony and requires the intent to burn the building with a person inside using an explosive incendiary device. It has a maximum sentence of 25 years to life.

In California, a conviction for arson of property that is not one's own is a felony punishable by up to three years in state prison. Aggravated arson, which carries the most severe punishment for arson, is punishable by 10 years to life in state prison. Raymond Lee Oyler was ultimately convicted of murder and sentenced to death for a 2006 fire in southern California that led to the deaths of five U.S. Forest Service firefighters; he was the first U.S. citizen to receive such a conviction and penalty for wildfire arson. [23]

Some states, such as California, prosecute the lesser offense of "reckless burning" when the fire is set recklessly as opposed to wilfully and maliciously. The study of the causes is the subject of fire investigation.

England, Wales, and Hong Kong

Cars damaged by arson in Millwall, Greater London, during the 2011 England Riots Sherwood Gardens Riots 03.jpg
Cars damaged by arson in Millwall, Greater London, during the 2011 England Riots

In British law, arson was a common law offence (except for the offence of arson in royal dockyards) [24] dealing with the criminal destruction of buildings by fire. The common law offence was abolished by s.11(1) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971. [25] The 1971 Act makes no distinction as to mode of destruction except that s.1(3) requires that if the destruction is by fire, the offence is charged as arson; s.4 of the Act provides a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for conviction under s.1 whether or not the offence is charged as arson. In Hong Kong, the common law offence was abolished by s 67 of the Crimes Ordinance 1971 (Part VIII of which, as amended by Crimes (Amendment) Ordinance 1972, [26] mirrored the English Criminal Damage Act 1971). [27] Like the English counterparts, 63 of the 1972 Ordinance provides a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, and s 60(3) of the Ordinance requires that if the damage is by fire the offence should be charged as arson.


While Scotland has no offence known as arson statutorily defined in their legal system, there are many offences that are used to charge those with acts that would normally constitute arson in other nations. Events constituting arson in British law might be dealt with as one or more of a variety of offences such as wilful fire-raising, culpable and reckless conduct, vandalism or other offences depending on the circumstances of the event. The more serious offences (in particular wilful fire-raising and culpable and reckless conduct) can incur a sentence of life imprisonment.

See also

Related Research Articles

Assault Physical or verbal attack of another person

An assault is the act of inflicting physical harm or unwanted physical contact upon a person or, in some specific legal definitions, a threat or attempt to commit such an action. It is both a crime and a tort and, therefore, may result in criminal prosecution, civil liability, or both. Generally, the common law definition is the same in criminal and tort law.

A felony is traditionally considered a crime of high seriousness, whereas a misdemeanor is regarded as less serious. The term "felony" originated from English common law to describe an offense that resulted in the confiscation of a convicted person's land and goods, to which additional punishments including capital punishment could be added; other crimes were called misdemeanors. Following conviction of a felony in a court of law, a person may be described as a felon or a convicted felon.

A misdemeanor is any "lesser" criminal act in some common law legal systems. Misdemeanors are generally punished less severely than felonies, but theoretically more so than administrative infractions and regulatory offences. Misdemeanor convictions typically result in small monetary fines, community service, or less than a year of jail-time.

Burglary, also called breaking and entering and sometimes housebreaking, is illegally entering a building or other areas to commit a crime. Usually that offence is theft, robbery or murder, but most jurisdictions include others within the ambit of burglary. To commit burglary is to burgle, a term back-formed from the word burglar, or to burglarize.


Mischief or malicious mischief is the name for a criminal offenses that is defined differently in different legal jurisdictions. While the wrongful acts will often involve what is popularly described as vandalism, there can be a legal differentiation between vandalism and mischief. The etymology of the word comes from Old French meschief, which means "misfortune", from meschever, "to end badly".

Battery is a criminal offense involving unlawful physical contact, distinct from assault which is the act of creating apprehension of such contact.

Intimidation is intentional behavior that would cause a person of reasonable apprehension to fear injury or harm. It is not necessary to prove that the behavior caused the victim to experience terror or panic.

The rule of felony murder is a legal doctrine in some common law jurisdictions that broadens the crime of murder: when an offender kills in the commission of a dangerous or enumerated crime, the offender, and also the offender's accomplices or co-conspirators, may be found guilty of murder.

Reckless burning is a crime that involves illegally setting fire to something not of building proportions, such as leaves or trash. It is a lesser charge than arson. It is usually enacted and levied in areas of high fire risk to prevent people from starting fires that could easily get out of control.

Fire-raising may refer to:

In criminal law and in the law of tort, recklessness may be defined as the state of mind where a person deliberately and unjustifiably pursues a course of action while consciously disregarding any risks flowing from such action. Recklessness is less culpable than malice, but is more blameworthy than carelessness.

In criminal law, intent is a subjective state of mind that must accompany the acts of certain crimes to constitute a violation. A more formal, generally synonymous legal term is scienter: intent or knowledge of wrongdoing.

Malicious Damage Act 1861 United Kingdom legislation

The Malicious Damage Act 1861 is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. It consolidated provisions related to malicious damage from a number of earlier statutes into a single Act. For the most part these provisions were, according to the draftsman of the Act, incorporated with little or no variation in their phraseology. It is one of a group of Acts sometimes referred to as the Criminal Law Consolidation Acts 1861. It was passed with the object of simplifying the law. It is essentially a revised version of an earlier consolidation Act, the Malicious Injuries to Property Act 1827, incorporating subsequent statutes.

Property crime is a category of crime, usually involving private property, that includes, among other crimes, burglary, larceny, theft, motor vehicle theft, arson, shoplifting, and vandalism. Property crime is a crime to obtain money, property, or some other benefit. This may involve force, or the threat of force, in cases like robbery or extortion. Since these crimes are committed in order to enrich the perpetrator they are considered property crimes. Crimes against property are divided into two groups: destroyed property and stolen property. When property is destroyed, it could be called arson or vandalism. Examples of the act of stealing property is robbery or embezzlement.

Wilful fire-raising is a common law offence under Scots law applicable to deliberately starting fires with intent to cause damage to property.

Criminal damage in English law

Criminal damage in English law was originally a common law offence. The offence was largely concerned with the protection of dwellings and the food supply, and few sanctions were imposed for damaging personal property. Liability was originally restricted to the payment of damages by way of compensation.

Scottish criminal law

Scots criminal law relies far more heavily on common law than in England and Wales. Scottish criminal law includes offences against the person of murder, culpable homicide, rape and assault, offences against property such as theft and malicious mischief, and public order offences including mobbing and breach of the peace. Scottish criminal law can also be found in the statutes of the UK Parliament with some areas of criminal law, such as misuse of drugs and traffic offences appearing identical on both sides of the Border. Scottish criminal law can also be found in the statute books of the Scottish Parliament such as the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 and Prostitution (Scotland) Act 2007 which only apply to Scotland. In fact, the Scots requirement of corroboration in criminal matters changes the practical prosecution of crimes derived from the same enactment. Corroboration is not required in England or in civil cases in Scotland. Scots law is one of the few legal systems that require corroboration.

Burglary is a statutory offence in England and Wales.

Common law offences are crimes under English criminal law and the related criminal law of other Commonwealth countries. They are offences under the common law, developed entirely by the law courts, having no specific basis in statute.

Culpable and Reckless Conduct is a common law crime under Scots Law.


  1. 1 2 3 4 "Arson". FindLaw. Archived from the original on January 5, 2019. Retrieved January 4, 2019.
  2. arson. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language , Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. Accessed: January 27, 2008
  3. "StackPath".
  4. Zalma, Barry (January 8, 2014). "Fraud Proved – Lie About Cause Of Fire Sufficient to Support Guilty Verdict". LexisNexis. Archived from the original on January 5, 2019. Retrieved January 4, 2019.
  5. Analysis and interpretation of fire scene evidence. Almirall, José R., Furton, Kenneth G. Boca Raton: CRC Press. 2004. ISBN   978-0849378850. OCLC   53360702.CS1 maint: others (link)
  6. 1 2 Burton, Paul R.; McNiel, Dale E.; Binder, Renée L. (November 2012). "Firesetting, arson, pyromania, and the forensic mental health expert" (PDF). Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. 40 (3): 355–365. PMID   22960918. Archived (PDF) from the original on January 5, 2019.
  7. "arson - Origin and meaning of arson by Online Etymology Dictionary".
  8. Various. Chambers's Twentieth Century Dictionary (part 1 of 4: A-D). Library of Alexandria. ISBN   9781465562883 via Google Books.
  9. "Definition of arson -".
  10. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. (accessed: January 27, 2008)
  11. Black's Law Dictionary (9th ed.). 2009. Arson. At common law, the malicious burning of someone else's dwelling house or outhouse that is either appurtenant to the dwelling house or within the curtilage.
  12. Boyce & Perkins, Criminal Law, 3rd ed. (1992) at 280, 281.
  13. 1 2 3 Boyce & Perkins, Criminal Law, 3rd ed. (1992) at 281.
  14. "Arson: Legal Aspects – Common Law Arson". Law Library – American Law and Legal Information. Retrieved May 10, 2008.
  15. Nagel, Ilene H. (1983). "The Legal/Extra-Legal Controversy: Judicial Decisions in Pretrial Release". Law & Society Review. 17 (3): 481–516. doi:10.2307/3053590. JSTOR   3053590.
  16. See U.S. v. Miller, 246 Fed.Appx. 369 (C.A.6 (Tenn.) 2007); U.S. v. Velasquez-Reyes, 427 F.3d 1227, 1230–1231 and n. 2 (9th Cir.2005).
  17. "Campus Crime: Crime Codes and Degree of Severity". California State University, Monterey Bay. Archived from the original on December 24, 2008. Retrieved May 10, 2008.
  18. See U.S. v. Miller, 246 Fed.Appx. 369 (C.A.6 (Tenn.) 2007)
  19. Garofoli, Joe (September 1, 2007). "Suspect in Burning Man arson decries event's loss of spontaneity". San Francisco Chronicle . p. A8. Archived from the original on April 25, 2008. Retrieved May 11, 2008.
  20. "Reason for Referral". Nebraska Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice. Archived from the original on May 3, 2008. Retrieved May 11, 2008.
  21. "Man accused of arson pleads to misdemeanor charges". The Salina Journal . January 25, 2008. Archived from the original on December 22, 2008. Retrieved May 11, 2008.
  22. 3 Charles E. Torcia, Wharton's Criminal Law § 326 (14th ed. 1980)
  23. "Getting Tough on Arson". Utne Reader. January–February 2011. p. 13.
  24. William Blackstone (1765–1769). "Of Offenses against the Habitations of Individuals [Book the Fourth, Chapter the Sixteenth]". Commentaries on the Laws of England. Oxford: Clarendon Press (reproduced on The Avalon Project at Yale Law School). Archived from the original on May 3, 2008. Retrieved June 1, 2008..
  25. "Criminal Damage Act 1971" . Retrieved March 24, 2010.

Further reading