Award-Winning Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers for Arson Charges

If you are under investigation for or have been charged with arson, aggravated arson, causing or risking a catastrophe, or reckless burning, we can help. Our Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers are experienced and understanding professionals with proven track records of success in defending clients against all types of criminal matters in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Because of the potential risk to human life and for significant property damage, Arson is an extremely serious offense. Arson cases also often involve the use of expert witnesses, making arson a charge that requires a great deal of expertise to defend. We know how to fight these cases, and our criminal defense attorneys offer a complimentary criminal defense strategy session to anyone who is charged with a crime or who may be under investigation. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an award-winning defense attorney today.   


What is Arson?

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

Arson generally involves intentionally starting a fire, and the arson statute can apply even when you start a fire on your own property. Arson becomes Aggravated Arson when the arson results in death or serious bodily injury to another person, and this includes death or serious bodily injury to the firefighters or other first responders who arrive to fight the fire. Arson also becomes Aggravated Arson when the defendant starts a fire in a building in which someone else is present. However, Arson requires more than simply starting a fire or it would criminalize otherwise lawful conduct like having a bonfire on a private beach. In order to prove arson where the fire occurred on the defendant's property,, the Government must also show that the defendant recklessly created a risk of bodily injury to another person. It is also an arson to create a fire or have someone else create a fire with the purpose of destroying someone else's building or inhabited structure. If an arson results in the death of another person, then the arson may be charged as second degree Murder, which could result in a mandatory sentence of life without parole. Arson is a second degree felony punishable by up to ten years in prison, and Aggravated Arson is a first degree felony punishable by up to twenty years in prison. 

There are a number of related offenses to arson, including causing a catastrophe, risking a catastrophe, and reckless burning. In general, each offense is somewhat similar to arson, however they often involve lesser degrees of risk to people and property. Therefore, they generally have lower gradations. Nonetheless, many of these charges are still felonies and punishable by significant periods of jail time.  

What are the defenses to Arson charges?

There are generally two types of arson cases.

Arson Defense Lawyer Demetra Mehta, Esq.

Arson Defense Lawyer Demetra Mehta, Esq.

  • First, there are arson cases in which there are eyewitness or other direct evidence that the defendant started the fire. For example, if a witness observed the defendant starting the fire or the defendant gave a statement to the police admitting to starting the fire, then arson could potentially be proven through direct eyewitness testimony. In this type of case, the defenses would typically involve challenging the testimony against the defendant. In the case of incriminating statements, the defense may involve showing that the statements were illegally obtained by the police by litigating a Motion to Suppress. If the statements were made to other people or there were eyewitnesses, then the defense could involve challenging the credibility of the witnesses through cross examination or their ability to observe who actually started the fire.

    In addition to credibility challenges, the defense may always challenge whether the prosecution proved all of the elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. For example, if the prosecution can show only that the defendant started a fire but the fire did not cause a risk of bodily injury or a risk to property, then the prosecution may be unable to prove arson. 
     
  • Second, there are often arson cases in which there are not any witnesses to the starting of the fire or any directly incriminating statements, but the prosecution will call the fire marshal to testify as an expert witness that the fire must have been started intentionally. In these types of cases, there will typically be some other circumstantial evidence which the prosecution believes points to the defendant as the cause of the fire. These cases may involve challenges both to the conclusions, methods, and expertise of the Commonwealth's expert witnesses as well as the circumstantial evidence linking the defendant to the fire. In some cases, these challenges may be made through cross examination. In others, it may require retaining an expert defense witness to explain many of the problems in the assumptions and conclusions made by fire investigators. 

 

What kind of sentence could I get for an arson conviction?

Arson cases are taken extremely seriously by the prosecution due to the potential for the loss of life and property. Additionally, insurance companies lobby for severe penalties for arson convictions due to the impact on their profits and losses. Aggravated Arson is a felony of the first degree, and ordinary Arson is a felony of the second degree. Further, if someone dies, then arson becomes murder of the second degree, which has a mandatory minimum of life in prison.

Although arson is punishable with significant jail time, there is no mandatory minimum for a first offense arson conviction. Therefore, the sentencing judge has an enormous amount of discretion in deciding what type of sentence to impose. However, even when the judge imposes a probationary sentence, there can be significant collateral consequences to an arson conviction in terms of the ability to obtain housing and insurance because insurance companies are extremely wary of doing business with someone with a conviction for arson. Therefore, arson charges must be taken extremely seriously even where no one was hurt and property damage was relatively minimal. 

How can a Philadelphia criminal lawyer help?

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The Philadelphia criminal lawyers of Goldstein Mehta LLC have extensive experience defending against all types of criminal charges in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, including serious charges like arson and causing a catastrophe. When you retain us, we will investigate your case, obtain the discovery and evidence against you, seek out exculpatory witnesses and evidence, and consult with the necessary expert witnesses who may be able to testify on your behalf. We are thorough, diligent attorneys who will always fight to get you the best possible result in any criminal case. If you are facing charges for arson or any other criminal offense, call 267-225-2545 to speak with one of our award-winning lawyers today. 


Contact a Philadelphia Arson Lawyer Today

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Goldstein Mehta LLC Philadelphia Criminal Lawyers

Goldstein Mehta LLC Philadelphia Criminal Lawyers


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The Arson Statute:

§ 3301.  Arson and related offenses.

(a)  Arson endangering persons.--

(1)  A person commits a felony of the first degree if he intentionally starts a fire or causes an explosion, or if he aids, counsels, pays or agrees to pay another to cause a fire or explosion, whether on his own property or on that of another, and if:

(i)  he thereby recklessly places another person in danger of death or bodily injury, including but not limited to a firefighter, police officer or other person actively engaged in fighting the fire; or

(ii)  he commits the act with the purpose of destroying or damaging an inhabited building or occupied structure of another.

(2)  A person who commits arson endangering persons is guilty of murder of the second degree if the fire or explosion causes the death of any person, including but not limited to a firefighter, police officer or other person actively engaged in fighting the fire, and is guilty of murder of the first degree if the fire or explosion causes the death of any person and was set with the purpose of causing the death of another person.

(a.1)  Aggravated arson.--

(1)  A person commits a felony of the first degree if he intentionally starts a fire or causes an explosion, or if he aids, counsels, pays or agrees to pay another to cause a fire or explosion, whether on his own property or on that of another, and if:

(i)  he thereby attempts to cause, or intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causes bodily injury to another person, including, but not limited to, a firefighter, police officer or other person actively engaged in fighting the fire; or

(ii)  he commits an offense under this section which is graded as a felony when a person is present inside the property at the time of the offense.

(2)  A person who commits aggravated arson is guilty of murder of the second degree if the fire or explosion causes the death of any person, including, but not limited to, a firefighter, police officer or other person actively engaged in fighting the fire.

(a.2)  Arson of historic resource.--A person commits a felony of the second degree if the person, with the intent of destroying or damaging a historic resource of another, does any of the following:

(1)  Intentionally starts a fire or causes an explosion, whether on the person's own property or that of another.

(2)  Aids, counsels, pays or agrees to pay another to cause a fire or explosion.

(b)  Sentence.--

(1)  A person convicted of violating the provisions of subsection (a)(2), murder of the first degree, shall be sentenced to death or life imprisonment without right to parole; a person convicted of murder of the second degree, pursuant to subsection (a)(2), shall be sentenced to life imprisonment without right to parole. Notwithstanding provisions to the contrary, no language herein shall infringe upon the inherent powers of the Governor to commute said sentence.

(2)  A person convicted under subsection (a.1) may be sentenced to a term of imprisonment which shall be fixed by the court at not more than 40 years if:

(i)  bodily injury results to a firefighter, police officer or other person actively engaged in fighting the fire; or

(ii)  serious bodily injury results to a civilian.

(c)  Arson endangering property.--A person commits a felony of the second degree if he intentionally starts a fire or causes an explosion, whether on his own property or that of another, or if he aids, counsels, pays or agrees to pay another to cause a fire or explosion, and if:

(1)  he commits the act with intent of destroying or damaging a building or unoccupied structure of another;

(2)  he thereby recklessly places an inhabited building or occupied structure of another in danger of damage or destruction; or

(3)  he commits the act with intent of destroying or damaging any property, whether his own or of another, to collect insurance for such loss.

(d)  Reckless burning or exploding.--A person commits a felony of the third degree if he intentionally starts a fire or causes an explosion, or if he aids, counsels, pays or agrees to pay another to cause a fire or explosion, whether on his own property or on that of another, and thereby recklessly:

(1)  places an uninhabited building or unoccupied structure of another in danger of damage or destruction; or

(2)  places any personal property of another having a value that exceeds $5,000 or if the property is an automobile, airplane, motorcycle, motorboat or other motor-propelled vehicle in danger of damage or destruction.

(d.1)  Dangerous burning.--A person commits a summary offense if he intentionally or recklessly starts a fire to endanger any person or property of another whether or not any damage to person or property actually occurs.

(e)  Failure to control or report dangerous fires.--A person who knows that a fire is endangering the life or property of another and fails to take reasonable measures to put out or control the fire, when he can do so without substantial risk to himself, or to give a prompt fire alarm, commits a misdemeanor of the first degree if:

(1)  he knows that he is under an official, contractual or other legal duty to control or combat the fire; or

(2)  the fire was started, albeit lawfully, by him or with his assent, or on property in his custody or control.

(f)  Possession of explosive or incendiary materials or devices.--A person commits a felony of the third degree if he possesses, manufactures or transports any incendiary or explosive device or material with the intent to use or to provide such device or material to commit any offense described in this chapter.

(g)  Disclosure of true owner.--Law enforcement officers investigating an offense under this section may require a trustee of a passive trust or trust involving an undisclosed principal or straw party to disclose the actual owner or beneficiary of the real property in question. The name of the actual owner or beneficiary of real estate subject to a passive trust, trust involving an undisclosed principal or arrangement with a straw party when obtained under the provisions of this subsection shall not be disclosed except as an official part of an investigation and prosecution of an offense under this section. A person who refuses to disclose a name as required by this section or who discloses a name in violation of this subsection is guilty of a misdemeanor of the third degree.

(h)  Limitations on liability.--The provisions of subsections (a), (b), (c), (d), (d.1) and (e) shall not be construed to establish criminal liability upon any volunteer or paid firefighter or volunteer or paid firefighting company or association if said company or association endangers a participating firefighter or real or personal property in the course of an approved, controlled fire training program or fire evolution, provided that said company or association has complied with the following:

(1)  a sworn statement from the owner of any real or personal property involved in such program or evolution that there is no fire insurance policy or no lien or encumbrance exists which applies to such real or personal property;

(2)  approval or permits from the appropriate local government or State officials, if necessary, to conduct such program or exercise have been received;

(3)  precautions have been taken so that the program or evolution does not affect any other persons or real or personal property; and

(4)  participation of firefighters in the program or exercise if voluntary.

(h.1)  Prohibition on certain service.--(Deleted by amendment).

(i)  Defenses.--It is a defense to prosecution under subsections (c), (d) and (d.1) where a person is charged with destroying a vehicle, lawful title to which is vested in him, if the vehicle is free of any encumbrances, there is no insurance covering loss by fire or explosion or both on the vehicle and the person delivers to the nearest State Police station at least 48 hours in advance of the planned destruction a written sworn statement certifying that the person is the lawful titleholder, that the vehicle is free of any encumbrances and that there is no insurance covering loss by fire or explosion or both on the vehicle.

(j)  Definitions.--As used in this section the following words and phrases shall have the meanings given to them in this subsection:

"Historic resource."  A building or structure, including a covered bridge, which:

(1)  has been in existence for more than 100 years, including partial or complete reconstruction of a building or structure originally erected at least 100 years ago; or

(2)  has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places or the Pennsylvania Register of Historic Places.

"Occupied structure."  Any structure, vehicle or place adapted for overnight accommodation of persons or for carrying on business therein, whether or not a person is actually present. If a building or structure is divided into separately occupied units, any unit not occupied by the actor is an occupied structure of another.

"Property of another."  A building or other property, whether real or personal, in which a person other than the actor has an interest which the actor has no authority to defeat or impair, even though the actor may also have an interest in the building or property.

(Apr. 29, 1982, P.L.363, No.101, eff. 90 days; Dec. 7, 1982, P.L.811, No.227, eff. 60 days; Dec. 3, 1998, P.L.933, No.121, eff. 60 days; Nov. 29, 2006, P.L.1481, No.168, eff. 60 days; Nov. 23, 2010, P.L.1181, No.118, eff. 60 days; Feb. 25, 2014, P.L.33, No.16, eff. 60 days)