Perhaps the most important thing to know about arson and the law is that if you are charged with an arson crime in the State of Washington, you will be in serious legal trouble, and you will need to be represented by the right Seattle criminal defense lawyer.
How common is arson in the State of Washington? What kind of damage has it caused in the past? What are the penalties for an arson conviction? Keep reading, and you’ll learn the answers to those questions. You’ll also learn what to do if you are accused of committing an act of arson.
Arsonists set fires for a number of reasons. Many do it for insurance money. Revenge is a motive for others. And occasionally, an arsonist is mentally ill and sets fires for no sane or plausible reason. Each year in the U.S., there are more than 3,100 arson attacks on small businesses.
Most states recognize several “degrees” of arson. Specific arson charges depend on factors like the threat posed to human life, the value of the damaged property, and whether the property was destroyed deliberately or destroyed as a consequence of reckless behavior.
HOW DOES WASHINGTON CATEGORIZE ARSON CRIMES?
Arson happens in the State of Washington when someone deliberately sets off a fire or explosion with the intention of damaging a structure, a vehicle, or another property. Businesses and residences are the usual targets of arsonists.
Washington recognizes four particular arson crimes:
1. arson in the first degree
2. arson in the second degree
3. reckless burning in the first degree
4. reckless burning in the second degree
WHAT CONSTITUTES ARSON IN THE FIRST DEGREE?
An individual commits arson in the first degree if he or she intentionally and maliciously causes a fire or explosion which is manifestly dangerous to human life and/or damages a dwelling or damages any building where a person is present. First-degree arson is a Class A felony.
First-degree arson is also the charge when a fire or explosion is set on property valued at or above $10,000 when the motive is collecting insurance money. A conviction for first-degree arson in Washington may be penalized with up to life in prison and a fine of up to $50,000.
WHAT CONSTITUTES ARSON IN THE SECOND DEGREE?
In Washington, an individual commits arson in the second degree if he or she intentionally and maliciously causes a fire or explosion which damages any structure, building, dock, wharf, machine, engine, motor vehicle, aircraft, watercraft, bridge, timber, lumber, crop, or fence.
Arson in the second degree is a Class B felony in this state. A conviction for second-degree arson is punishable with a prison term of up to ten years and a fine of up to $20,000.
WHAT CONSTITUTES RECKLESS BURNING?
Reckless burning in the first degree happens in this state when someone knowingly sets off an explosion or a fire that recklessly damages a building or another structure; a vehicle, aircraft, watercraft, or railway car; or any grain, crop, hay, or timber.
Reckless burning in the second degree happens when someone knowingly causes an explosion or fire that recklessly places in danger a building, structure, vehicle, aircraft, watercraft, railway car, or any grain, crop, hay, or timber.
Reckless burning in the first degree is a Class C felony. A conviction may be penalized with up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. Reckless burning in the second degree is a misdemeanor. A conviction is punishable with up to 364 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
IS ARSON STILL A SERIOUS CONCERN IN WASHINGTON?
Those who are old enough will remember this state’s most famous serial arsonist, Paul Kenneth Keller, who is serving 107 years in prison and will not be eligible for parole until 2079. His story became a CBS movie of the week in 1995 starring Neil Patrick Harris.
Keller was convicted of setting 107 fires throughout the State of Washington, causing $30 million in property damage, and killing three innocent retirees when he torched the Four Freedoms House retirement home in Seattle in 1992 as part of a six-month arson spree.
Arson, however, is still a serious concern in Washington. In 2018, the state’s law enforcement officers made 189 arson arrests – 151 adults and 38 juveniles.
In February 2019, a 38-year-old man was charged by the Seattle police with four counts of arson. The suspect allegedly set a number of fires and was responsible for damage estimated at $4 million.
And in December 2019, Seattle police charged a 25-year-old man with setting twelve separate fires in a single night.
IF YOU ARE CHARGED WITH ARSON
If you have been charged with arson or reckless burning in this state for any reason, after reviewing your case, the right Seattle criminal defense lawyer will protect your rights, explain your options, and develop an effective, aggressive defense on your behalf.
If you are charged with arson – even if you are innocent – exercise your right to remain silent and insist upon having your attorney present for any questioning. Do not plead guilty or agree to any plea deal before you consult with a defense lawyer who has experience handling arson cases.
And do not consider trying to act as your own attorney. Criminal law in Washington is exceedingly complex, too much will be at stake, and anything that you say could be used against you.
As you know, in any criminal prosecution, the state must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to obtain a conviction. A good defense attorney will review the arson charge against you, cast doubt on the state’s evidence, and fight on your behalf for the best possible outcome.
WHAT ARE THE DEFENSES AGAINST AN ARSON CHARGE?
In some arson cases, a defense lawyer must show that a defendant acted with an entirely legal purpose.
Other defenses against an arson charge include:
1. Someone else committed the arson, and you were framed.
2. You were misidentified by one or more eyewitnesses.
However, even if the evidence against you is overwhelming and a conviction for arson is unavoidable, the right defense attorney will work for reduced or alternative sentencing. If you’re charged with arson – or with any other crime in Washington – a good lawyer’s help is your right.