According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, the arson rate has increased by 23.7% with the statistics of there being 10.1 arsons for every 100,000 people. It can be hard to tell when a fire started as an accident or started with the intention of committing arson. If you witness a fire, the best thing to do is call the fire department to get immediate help in putting the fire out. Once a fire is started, it can spread quickly and cause not only damage, but it can also cause people to be in danger.
Who Prosecutes When Arson Occurs And Foul Play Is Present
In Houston, there is the Fire Marshall Investigation Division that is responsible for investigating fires, arson and explosions in an unincorporated area in Harris County. They work with law enforcement to identify foul play and prosecute arsonists.
According to the Penal Code Section 417.006; Fire Marshalls may commission peace officers to act as fire and arson investigators under their supervision and to perform law enforcement duties assigned to the commissioner and fire marshall by law.
The State Fire Marshall will immediately investigate a fire in which property is destroyed or at the request of the mayor, fire chief, police chief, judge, insurance company or policyholder of the insurance. Penal Code 417.007 (6E) states if the State Fire Marshall believes that there is enough sufficient evidence to charge someone who has committed arson, attempted arson, conspiracy to commit fraud or other related offenses, then the State Fire Marshall will give it to the appropriate prosecuting attorney. The Fire Marshall themselves only employ investigators; they will not be the ones prosecuting the crime.
Arson is defined as starting a fire, regardless if the fire continues after ignition or if an explosion is caused, with the intent to destroy or damage another property. Property types that are included in the penal code are any type of vegetation, fence, any structure on open-space land, buildings, structures in general or vehicles.
The penal code goes on to include the knowledge that the property being burned is within the city limits of an incorporated city or town, that the property is subject to a mortgage or is insured, knowing that located within the burning or explosion that there is property belonging to another. Or if you are reckless about whether the burning is a danger to someone or someone’s property.
Also, it’s important to note damage to the actual property is not a required element for someone to be charged with arson and you can still be charged with arson even if the fire does not continue after you ignite it.
What Are Common Motives For Arson?
Some common motives for arson are insurance fraud, revenge, political motivation, mental health and intoxication. Insurance fraud is a big one, as some homes can be insured with fire insurance, meaning if a fire was to break out, the insurance company would cover any damage or loss incurred by the fire. Some people might burn down their houses in an attempt to make a claim with their insurance company and try to recover money for damages due to the fire.
Revenge could also play a role in arson, as to why someone decides to set a building on fire. Office fires do happen; it could be a jilted employee who set a trash can on fire or it could be an upset significant other or family member setting fire to your car.
Political motivation can play a role in arson, like the recent arson of an Illinois man who set fire to a planned parenthood agency. These kinds of extreme acts are most likely to be done by extremists and as such, they can be difficult to defend.
Mental health can also play a big role in arson, especially if a person is diagnosed with an impulsive disorder such as schizophrenia or a personality disorder. It is good to let your attorney know if you suffer from any type of mental health illness, as it can help you build a better case to defend yourself.
Intoxication can play a big role in arson as well, as it could be considered reckless arson. For example, if you simply failed to put out a campfire properly because you were under the influence or if you fell asleep and you forgot to turn it off, causing the ambers to ignite a tree, a structure or something else. Another example is you accidentally started a fire without meaning to, by adding too much accelerant in the barbeque grill, on a bonfire you were trying to start because you had too much to drink, causing you to not concentrate on what you were doing.
The Penalties Of Arson
Arson is a crime taken very seriously in Texas since arsonists can hurt others in the process but also cause destruction. All cases of arson are subjected to a $10,000 fine the court may subject them to regardless of the level of sentencing. Most cases of arson are considered a 2nd-degree felony that results in 2-20 years in prison. But there are other degrees of felonies of arson that can occur; it is just the right criteria that must be met.
Arson of the first degree is when a fire is intentionally started and there was bodily injury or death of a person. Also, if a fire was intentionally started to destroy or damage a place of assembly or worship. The penalty for this is 5-99 years in prison.
Arson of the third degree is when a fire is started while manufacturing controlled substances and a building gets damaged and results in bodily injury or death of a person. The penalty for this is 2-10 years in prison.
A state jail felony of arson is when a fire is started recklessly manufacturing controlled substances that damage buildings, habitation or vehicles. Fires that are started recklessly and cause reckless damage or reckless injury, are also considered a state jail felony. The penalty for this kind of recklessness is 180 days to 2 years in prison.
Defenses Against Arson
When you are facing Arson charges, it is in your best interest to find yourself an attorney who specializes in criminal law and work with your attorney to build a good defense case so he or she can better help you prepare for your case in court. Defense lawyers are beneficial in helping you understand the full terms of your charge and how best to defend it.
The first step to defend your case against arson is, if there was a lack of intent, which would help lower the severity of the charge. Although you could still be convicted of a felony, the penalty would be jail instead of prison. Which would be 180 days to 2 years in jail with a $10,000 fine. Lack of intent can be proven if there was no motive for the arson and it was just a reckless accident such as letting a bonfire get out of control and you not being able to put out the fire on time causing it to grow. You could be able to get a plea bargain or even a case dismissal, especially if no one was harmed during the incident. For example, one defense to consider when facing these charges is, if you were given the permit for a controlled burning. Because you have a permit or authorization, the arson charge could be dropped as you were authorized to burn. It is a good idea for you to check with the Texas Department of Agriculture if you plan on doing a controlled burning on your fields or crops. They might be able to supply you with authorization or a permit to burn so you can have peace of mind and safely burn within the law.
Another aspect to consider if you are charged with arson is if you were simply burning leaves on your lawn. It could be that someone reported you thinking it was arson. This is a legal activity and is considered outdoor burning. If you have permission from your local government, then it is not considered arson. It is highly recommended to watch your burn pile and make sure there is not a burn ban in effect and you burn in an open area so that the ambers do not land on a tree, bush, trash, a structure or anything that will light up quickly.
A good thing to remember in building a defense against arson is; an arson investigation has specific steps in collecting and analyzing the evidence. If one thing is flawed in the investigation, you can use that to make your defense strong. As they will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt you committed arson.
The Criminal Proceedings Of Arson
If arson is committed, the first people on the scene would be the firefighters and ambulances, in case there was medical attention needed. Also, it is essential to note any community that has suffered a fire-related incident can contact the Fire Investigators Division for assistance.
Once the fire is out, police and fire investigators from the Texas Department of Insurance will come out to inspect the building and see if it was covered by insurance and look to see if there was any foul play committed. Foul play is any unlawful or dishonest behavior that can include the result of the death of another.
The Fire Investigators will then determine the fire’s origin and cause. They may also bring out canines who can detect accelerants to determine if an accelerant was added to make the fire burn faster. These indicators can help confirm if the fire spread faster; if there was an intention to make it spread faster by adding an accelerant.
Catastrophic fires are categorized as fires that have resulted in death, significant property damage or pose a serious threat to public health and safety, ranked the highest on the protocol list. The protocol list also includes fires that are believed to be created due to the work of a serial arsonist related to hate crimes or where an operation of a vital public institution is compromised.
Once all the evidence is gathered, the fire investigators will hand over all the evidence to a prosecutor to file a prosecution against a suspect. In this situation, the defendant will be served by the city or county the fire resided in. For example, Harris County vs. the defendant or Montgomery County vs. the defendant. If there was a formal person who put in the complaint, then it would be the injured party known as the Plaintiff vs. the defendant or you. It should be known if the city is prosecuting, the likelihood of there being a plea bargain is slim.
Once you have been served, you will be given a court date for the arraignment to see what evidence the other party has against you. At this crucial time, having a defense attorney in your corner can help you reduce your sentencing by negotiating a plea deal, if possible. It is also important to pay attention to what evidence they hold against you to see if you can point out any flaws and tell your defense attorney so they can help your case. If you go to trial, make sure it is only because a plea bargain could not be met, as the consequences of arson are very severe and detrimental to your quality of life after getting out of prison. At trial, it is a good idea to bring an eyewitness who can state good character qualities about you or provide an alibi to disconnect you from the crime.
Once the court proceedings are over, the judge will then decide what level of consequence to charge you for arson. Some mitigating factors that can play into a judge’s decision are age; if you are a minor versus an adult. Also, your criminal record, if you have and can play a role in the severity of consequences. If this is a first offense and no one was injured, you might have a better chance of getting jail time than someone who has done this offense already. As always, when facing these charges, it is important to have the best defense attorney on your side.
Need Help? Call Us Now!
Do not forget that when you or anyone you know is facing a criminal charge of Arson, you have us, the Law Office of Brian Fagan, by your side to help you build the best defense case for you. Therefore, do not hesitate to call us if you find yourself or someone you know who is being charged with Arson, as this is a serious crime with detrimental consequences. It is vital to have someone explain the result of the charge and guide you in the best possible way.
Here at the Law Office of Bryan Fagan, we have professional and knowledgeable criminal law attorneys who are experienced in building a defense that suits your needs for the best possible outcome that can benefit you.
We offer free consultations at your convenience via Zoom, phone or in person. We will provide you with as much advice and information so you can have the best result in your case. Call us now at (281) 810-9760.