Arson in New York State
If you’ve been arrested for arson seek legal advice immediately.
Under New York State law, many degrees of arson are considered to be felonies. Arson is a serious offense in New York State. The penalties for arson are severe, and proper legal counsel is essential to establishing a suitable defense.
New York Penal Law § 150
Penal Law Article 150 outlines arson in New York State. New York State’s Penal Law categorizes arson in terms of five degrees of severity: first, second, third, fourth, and fifth, with the first being the most severe. Regardless of the degree, the basic tenet remains the same.
Definition of Arson
Arson involves endangering people or property through the setting of fires or explosives.
In New York, the charge of arson is applied to cases in which a person’s property has been damaged by a fire started by the accused or if they endanger either the property or wellbeing of those located within or near the fire at the time.
Elements of Arson
In a system in which you are innocent until proven guilty, the burden of proving that a particular crime occurred falls on the prosecution. Let’s delve a little bit more deeply into the elements of arson in order to better understand its meaning and implications.
Definition of a “Building”
The concept of building and structure is defined broadly: it encompasses vehicles, commercial spaces, private dwellings, and public properties.
Definition of a “Motor Vehicle”
According to New York Penal Law § 150, a “motor vehicle” includes every vehicle operated or driven upon a public highway.
You can be charged with arson if you set a fire, either recklessly or intentionally.
Under article §150, for a defendant to be convicted of arson in a criminal trial for arson, the prosecution must prove that a criminal act of arson occurred. The case of first and second-degree arson charges the defendant knew that a person was present in the building or motor vehicle at the time of the crime, or should have reasonably known so.
In the case first-degree arson charges, the defendant must also have either used an incendiary device or explosive or committed the act for monetary gain that seriously harmed another person in the process
- For example:
Suppose Timothy and Don are brothers, and they live in the same neighborhood. Timothy and Don are in the middle of a dispute because Don owes Timothy a large sum of money, but doesn’t seem concerned about returning it. Instead, he buys a new mailbox for himself.
Finally, Timothy grows tired of Don’s behavior and decides to take matters into his own hands. He sets fire to a piece of Don’s property. Now, Timothy is on trial for arson. He has admitted to the crime, and the circumstances of his case must be considered in order to determine which degree of arson he is guilty of.
What factors will affect his sentencing?
- For instance, if Timothy has set fire to Don’s mailbox out of spite while he is away at work, Timothy can be charged with arson in the fifth degree. Timothy is setting fire to a piece of Don’s property without consent, but the damage done to both personhood and property is minimal, and Timothy does not intend to cause serious harm to Don.
- If Timothy has set fire to the mailbox, but the fire spreads out of control and damages a portion of Don’s house, Timothy can be charged with arson in the fourth degree. In this case, Timothy only intended to set fire to the mailbox, but his reckless actions led to serious damage being done to Don’s home and property.
- In the case that Timothy aims to set fire to the house with malicious intent, he can be charged with arson in the third degree. Although this act is more serious, he still does this knowing that Don is away at work and that he will not be harmed.
- If Timothy takes things further and sets fire to the house while Don is home, he can be charged with arson in the second degree. In this case, Timothy sets fire to a structure that might have a person inside of it. If Don escapes unharmed, Timothy may escape being charged with arson in the first degree.
- But, in the last case scenario, if Timothy sets fire to the house while Don is inside and Don is seriously injured or worse, Timothy can be charged with first-degree arson. Similarly, if Timothy does so using an explosive, or with the intention of collecting an insurance payment upon Don’s passing, he will be charged to the fullest extent of the New York State Penal Law. First-degree arson is on par with murder in the legal system. Timothy can serve up to life in prison.
What you can be charged with: five degrees of arson
The New York Statutes most directly related to arson are:
- Penal Law §150.01 Arson in the fifth degree
- Penal Law §150.05 Arson in the fourth degree
- Penal Law §150.10 Arson in the third degree
- Penal Law §150.15 Arson in the second degree
- Penal Law §150.20 Arson in the first degree
The degrees of arson are designated based on the level of damage done to the property or persons harmed during the offense. Some consideration is given to the intention behind the setting of the fire in arson cases. These two factors are important when considering a defense against a charge of arson, as well as the manner in which the fire was started.
- Arson in the fifth degree: a class A misdemeanor
This is the least serious of the five degrees of arson charges. According to article §150.01, arson in the fifth degree involves the intentional setting of fire to another person’s property but does not encompass the aggravated circumstances that make the other degrees of arson more severe.
An individual is charged with fifth-degree arson when they intentionally damage someone’s property by setting a fire without the owner’s consent. Arson in the fifth degree is a class A misdemeanor. If you are convicted of a class A misdemeanor in New York, you can serve up to one year in jail.
- Arson in the fourth degree : a class E felony
The fourth degree of arson is the second to a least serious offense. According to article §150.05, arson in the fourth degree involves the reckless setting of a fire that results in the damaging of a building or motor vehicle. The level of damage and recklessness involved in the act of arson distinguishes the fourth degree from the fifth.
The fourth degree also uses more specific language than the fifth, referring to the damage being done to a building or motor vehicle, as opposed to just property. Still, arson in the fourth degree does not encompass the aggravated circumstances that make the other three degrees of arson more severe.
Arson in the fourth degree is a class E felony. If you are convicted of a class E felony in New York, you can serve up to four years in jail.
- Arson in the third degree: a class C felony
This is the third most serious form of arson under New York Penal Law. According to article §150.10, arson in the third degree involves the intentional setting of a fire that results in the damaging of a building or motor vehicle.
The intention behind the act of arson distinguishes the third degree from the fourth. Whereas the damage in the fourth degree was the result of recklessness, the damage in the third degree was the result of malicious intent.
Arson in the third degree is a class C felony. If you are convicted of a class C felony in New York, you can serve up to 15 years in jail.
- Arson in the second degree: a class B felony
The second degree of arson is much more serious than the previous three. According to article §150.15, arson in the second degree involves the intentional setting of a fire that not only damages a building or motor vehicle but a person other than the defendant at risk.
An individual could be charged with arson in the second degree if they knew that there was someone present at the site where they started the fire or had reasonable reason to know that there might be.
Arson in the second degree is a class B violent felony. If you are convicted of a class B felony in New York, you can serve up to 25 years in jail.
- Arson in the first degree: a class A-I felony
Arson in the first degree is the most severe of the five degrees because it necessitates that a substantial amount of harm has been caused by the actions of the offender.
According to article § 150.20, an individual must have intentionally set fire to a building or motor vehicle with malicious intent, knowing that a person would likely be present. Additionally, if any of these conditions are met, it qualifies as a first-degree offense:
- The offender uses an explosive or incendiary device
- Someone other than the accused is seriously injured
- The fire is set with the intention of making money from the crime
Arson in the first degree is a class A-I felony. A class A-I felony carries a penalty of mandatory imprisonment of a minimum period between 15 to 25 years, or even a life sentence. The penalty for this offense is on par with murder,
Important Cases That Define Arson
People v. Jackson
In August 1978, six firefighters were killed while trying to put out a fire at a supermarket in Brooklyn, New York. Investigators determined that the fire was caused by arson. The resulting court case was People v. Jackson 65 N.Y.2d 265 (1985). Eric Jackson-Knight was arrested and charged with first-degree arson in connection with the fire.
As a result, the defendant was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life imprisonment. Later on, in 1994, the defendant was retried based on the fact that evidence had been withheld by the prosecution that suggested that the fire was not caused by arson, but an electrical problem. Jackson-Knight was acquitted of all charges.
This case is important because it shows how a credible defense of accidental fire can be used as a defense in an arson trial. Once reasonable doubt as to the existence of a criminal element was introduced, the defendant’s conviction was vacated.
People v. Hodges
In People v. Hodges, 07693 [66 AD3d 1228] (2009), the defendant purposely set fire to an establishment out of retaliation. Brian Hodges had been having sexual relations with an underage girl and acted out against the disapproving parents by starting a fire under the family store. He was indicted on arson in the second degree.
This case is significant because it showcases the importance of intention in arson cases within the realm of New York Penal Law. Hodges faced second-degree arson charges because he knowingly set fire to a structure that was likely to have people inside.
Possible defenses to an arson charge
The charge of arson rests on varying condition based on the degree of the crime. One component that remains the same is that the fire must have been caused by the defendant’s actions.
Therefore, in the case of third, fourth, and fifth-degree arson, the most viable defense is usually that the fire was accidental. But, because victims are involved in first and second-degree arson cases, the potential defenses are a little bit different.
In the case of second-degree arson, possible defenses include that the defendant could not reasonably predict that people might be present within the structure at the time of the offense, or that the fire was accidental. In the case of first-degree arson, possible defenses include that the injured parties are not as seriously injured as they claim to be, or that the fire was accidental.
Who investigates arson in New York State?
Arson cases are handled by expert officers trained extensively in the field of arson. The Fire Inspection and Investigation branch are responsible for investigating arson in New York State. New York State Executive Law created an Arson Board in order to assist the Secretary of State and the State Fire Administrator on arson issues.
What should additional considerations be made if you are facing an arson charge?
It’s important to note that malicious intent is not defined solely as a premeditated act of harm. Any act that is unreasonably or excessively reckless in nature can be considered malicious under the New York Penal Code.
Why You Need a Lawyer if You’re Facing Arson Charges?
If you are charged with arson, or even learn you are being investigated for possible participation in the act of arson, seek legal assistance immediately.
Arson charges are very serious. What’s worse, arson is a complex crime, and you will need a legal team that understands the intricacies of the charges you’re facing.
Depending upon the degree of arson with which you are charged, you could face years of imprisonment – even a life sentence. The offence of arson is multifaceted.
It requires lawyers knowledgeable about:
- The degrees of arson;
- How arson is investigated; and
- How investigators may question you during an interrogation surrounding an arson case
Lawyers can assist you in making statements during the investigation. Choosing the right defense is imperative to tackling the situation properly from the onset of an investigation.
Your legal counsel should be able to:
You will need legal counsel that has defended others charged with arson to defend you. Your legal counsel should be able to:
- Analyze your specific situation to determine if you have been properly charged with the offence or the degree of arson;
- Develop the best possible defense to the charges, based on their experience in other cases and their understanding of your particular situation;
Advocate forcefully on your behalf in all aspects of your defense.
Call us to be connected with a criminal defense attorney today.