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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Skyline Parkway Motel at Rockfish Gap after arson on July 9, 2004.

Arson[1] is the crime of intentionally and maliciously setting fire to structures or wildland areas.[2] It may be distinguished from other causes such as spontaneous combustion and natural wildfires. The study of the causes is the subject of fire investigation. Arson usually describes fires deliberately set to the property of another or to one's own property as to collect insurance compensation.[3]


Legal definitions

Common law

Arson (or fire-raising, as it is known in Scotland)[4] is defined as "the malicious burning of the dwelling of another" [5]" in common law.

The prosecutor must prove each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.[6]

. The destruction of an unoccupied building was not considered as arson, "[s]ince arson protected habitation, the burning of an unoccupied house did not constitute arson." Furthermore, "[t]he burning of one's own dwelling to collect insurance did not constitute common law arson. It was generally assumed in early England that one had the legal right to destroy his own property in any manner he chose."[7]

United States

In the U.S., 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.[8]

Arson is prosecuted with attention to degree of severity[9] in the alleged offense. First degree arson[10] generally occurs when persons are harmed or killed in the course of the fire, while second degree arson occurs when significant destruction of property occurs.[11] Arson may also be prosecuted as a misdemeanor,[12] "criminal mischief", or "destruction of property."[13] Burglary also occurs, if the arson involved a "breaking and entering".[14] A criminal may be sentenced to death penalty if arson occurred as a method of homicide, as was the recent case in California of Raymond Lee Oyler and in Texas of Cameron Willingham.

England and Wales

In English law, arson was a common law offence which was recently defined again and codified by the Criminal Damage Act 1971.


In Scots Law, the term "fire raising" is the equivalent term used instead of arson, but both mean the same.

See also



  1. ^ arson 1680, from Anglo-French. arsoun (1275), from Old French arsion, from L.L. arsionem (nom. arsio) "a burning," from L. arsus pp. of ardere "to burn," from PIE base *as- "to burn, glow" (see ardent). The Old English term was bærnet, lit. "burning;" and Coke has indictment of burning (1640). Arsonist is from 1864. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. [1] (accessed: January 27, 2008)
  2. ^ Kumar, Kris (February 2008). "Deliberately lit vegetation fires in Australia". Trends and issues in crime and criminal justice (Lynnwood: Australian Institute of Criminology) (350). ISBN 978 1 921185 71 7. ISSN 0817-8542. Retrieved 2009-01-09. 
  3. ^ arson. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. Accessed: January 27, 2008)
  4. ^ "Annual Report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary for Scotland 2005/2006". Retrieved 2008-10-06. 
  5. ^ 4 Blackstone, Commentaries (21st ed.) p. 220
  6. ^ Christopher B. Mueller & Laird C. Kirkpatrick, 1 Federal Evidence § 77 ( 2d ed. 2003) ( “[T]he ‘presumption of innocence’ .... is a way of forcefully emphasizing to the jury that the prosecutor has the obligation to prove each element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt, that the accused bears no proof burden whatsoever with respect to any element of the crime, and that no adverse inference should be drawn against [the accused] from the fact of [ ] arrest, indictment, or presence in court.”)
  7. ^ "Arson: Legal Aspects - Common Law Arson". Law Library - American Law and Legal Information. Retrieved 2008-05-10. 
  8. ^ 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).
  9. ^ "Campus Crime: Crime Codes and Degree of Severity". California State University, Monterey Bay. Retrieved 2008-05-10. 
  10. ^ See U.S. v. Miller, 246 Fed.Appx. 369 (C.A.6 (Tenn.) 2007)
  11. ^ Garofoli, Joe (September 1, 2007). "Suspect in Burning Man arson decries event's loss of spontaneity". San Francisco Chronicle: p. A8. Retrieved 2008-05-11. 
  12. ^ "Reason for Referral". Nebraska Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice. Retrieved 2008-05-11. 
  13. ^ "Man accused of arson pleads to misdemeanor charges". The Salina Journal. January 25, 2008. Retrieved 2008-05-11. 
  14. ^ 3 Charles E. Torcia, Wharton's Criminal Law § 326 (14th ed. 1980)

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

ARSON (from Lat. ardere, to burn), a crime which has been described as the malicious and voluntary burning of the house of another (3 Co. Inst. 66). At common law in England it is an offence of the degree of felony. In the Roman civil law arson was punishable by death. It appears early in the history of English law, being known in ancient laws by the term of boernet. It is mentioned by Cnut as one of the bootless crimes, and under the Saxon laws was punishable by death. The sentence of death for arson was, says Stephen (Commentaries, iv. 89), in the reign of Edward I. executed by a kind of lex talionis, for the incendiaries were burnt to death; a punishment which was inflicted also under the Gothic institutions. Death continued to be the penalty at least down to the reign of King John, according to a reported case (Gloucester Pleas, pl. 216), but in course of time the penalty became that of other common-law felonies, death by the gallows. It is one of the earliest crimes in which the mens y ea, or criminal intent, was taken special notice of. Bracton deals at length with the mala conscientia, which he says is necessary for this crime, and contrasts it with negligentia (f. 146 b), while in many early indictments malice aforethought (malitia praecogitata) appears. Arson was deprived of "benefit of clergy" under the Tudors, while an act of 8 Henry VI. c. 6 (1429) made the wilful burning of houses, under particular circumstances, high treason, but acts of I Ed. VI. C. 12 (1547) and I Mary (1553) reduced it to an ordinary felony. The English law concerning arson was consolidated by 7 & 8 Geo. IV. c. 30, which was repealed and reenacted by the Malicious Damage Act 1861.

The common-law offence of arson (which has been greatly enlarged by the act of 1861) required some part of the house to be actually burnt; neither a bare intention nor even an actual attempt by putting fire in or towards it will constitute the offence, if no part was actually burnt, but the burning of any part, however trifling, is sufficient, and the offence is complete even if the fire is put out or goes out of itself. The burning must be malicious and wilful, otherwise it is only a trespass. If a man by wilfully setting fire to his own house burn the house of his neighbour also, it will be a felony, even though the primary intention of the party was to burn his own house only. The word house, in the definition of the offence at common law, extends not only to dwelling-houses, "but to all out-houses which are parcel thereof, though not adjoining thereto." Barns with corn and hay in them, though distant from a house, are within the definition.

The different varieties of the offence are specified in the Malicious Damage Act 1861. The following crimes are thereby made felonies: (I) setting fire to any church, chapel, meetinghouse or other place of divine worship; (2) setting fire to a dwelling-house, any person being therein; (3) setting fire to a house, out-house, manufactory, farm-building, &c., with intent to impose and defraud any person; (4) setting fire to buildings appertaining to any railway, port, dock or harbour; or (5) setting fire to any public building. In these cases the act provides that the person convicted shall be liable, at the discretion of the court, to be kept in penal servitude for life, or for any term not less than three years (altered to five years by the Penal Servitude Acts Amendment Act 1864), or to be imprisoned for any time not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour, and, if a male under sixteen years of age, with or without whipping. Setting fire to other buildings, and setting fire to goods in buildings under such circumstances that, if the building were thereby set fire to, the offence would amount to felony, are subject to the punishments last enumerated, with this exception that the period of penal servitude is limited to fourteen years. The attempt to set fire to any building, or any matter or thing not enumerated above, is punishable as a felony. Russell says (Crimes, p. 1781) that the term building is no doubt very indefinite, but it was used in 9 & Jo Vict. C. 25, s. 2; and it was thought much better to adopt this term and leave it to be interpreted as each case might arise, than to attempt to define; as any such attempt would probably have failed in producing any expression more certain than the term "building" itself. In R. v. Manning, 1872 (L.R. 1 C.C.R. 338), it was held that an unfinished house was a building within the meaning of the act. The setting fire to crops of hay, grass, corn, &c., is punishable by penal servitude for any period not exceeding fourteen years, but setting fire to stacks of the same, or any cultivated vegetable produce, or to peat, coals, &c., is regarded as a more serious offence, and the penal servitude may be for life. For the attempt to commit the last two offences penal servitude is limited to seven years. Setting fire to mines of coal, anthracite or other mineral fuel is visited with the full measure of penalty, and in the case of an attempt the penal servitude is limited to fourteen years. By the Dockyards, &c., Protection Act 1772 it is a felony punishable by death wilfully and maliciously to set fire to any of His Majesty's ships or vessels of war, or any of His Majesty's arsenals, magazines, dockyards, rope-yards, victualling offices or buildings therein, or any timber, material, stores or ammunition of war therein or in any part of His Majesty's dominions. If the person guilty of the offence is a person subject to naval discipline, he is triable by court-martial, and if found guilty, a sentence of capital punishment may be passed. The Malicious Damage Act 1861, s. 43, also includes as a felony the setting fire to any ship or vessel, with intent to prejudice any owner or part owner of the vessel, or of any goods on the same, or any person who has underwritten any policy of insurance on the vessel, or upon any goods on board the same.

In Scotland the offence equivalent to arson in England is known by the more expressive name of fire-raising. The crime was punishable capitally by old consuetudinary law, but it is now no longer capital, and may be tried in the sheriff court (50 & 51 Vict. c. 35, s. 56). Formerly the public prosecutor had the privilege of declining to demand capital punishment, and he invariably did so. Wilful fire-raising, which is the most heinous form of the crime, requires the raising of fire, without any lawful object, but with the deliberate intention of destroying certain premises or things, whether directly by the application of fire thereto, or indirectly by its application to something contained in or forming part of or communicating with them; also the intention to destroy premises or things of a certain description (much as mentioned above); and such premises or things must be the property of another than the accused. Wicked, culpable and reckless fire-raising differs from wilful fire-raising in that the fire is raised without the deliberate intention of destroying premises or things, but while the accused was engaged in some unlawful act, or while he was in such a state of passion, excitement or recklessness as not to care what results might follow from his acts.

==United States== The same general principles apply to this crime in American law. In some states by statute the intent to injure or defraud must be shown, e.g. when the property is insured. In New York one who wilfully burns property (including a vessel or its cargo) with intent to defraud or prejudice the insurer thereof, though the offence of arson is not committed, is punishable by imprisonment for not more than five years (N.Y. Pen. Code, ss. 575, 57 8). There must be an intent to destroy the building (ibid. s. 490; California Code, s. 447). An agreement to commit arson is conspiracy (ibid. s. 171). Killing a person in committing the crime of arson is murder in the first degree (ibid. s. 183); this is so in California, even where the crime is merely an attempt to commit arson (Cal. Pen. Code, s. 189). Explosion of a house by gunpowder or dynamite is arson (Texas Pen. Code, art. 761), but a charge of arson by "burning" will not be sustained by proof of exploding by dynamite, even though part of the building is burnt by the explosion (Landers v. State [Tex.], 47 S.W. io08).

Authorities.-W. S. Holdsworth, History of English Law, vol. iii.; Pollock and Maitland, History of English Law; Stephen, History of Criminal Law, vol. iii.; Stephen, Commentaries; Russell on Crimes.

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Simple English

after an arson fire on July 9, 2004.]]

Arson is a crime. When someone sets fire to a property (a building) they do not own and they want to cause damage, it is called arson. A person who commits arson is an arsonist.

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