Fire has a devastating effect on buildings, and can quickly turn a multi-story apartment building into a blacked pile of rubble. Fire can destroy homes, and businesses, and force people to flee for their lives, losing everything of value that they own. In the worst cases, building fires can take the lives of residents or even firefighters battling the blaze. The impact of fire is so much greater when it turns out that the fire was set intentionally, involving the crime of arson.
What is Arson?
Under Massachusetts law, arson is considered a crime against property. Arson involves the willful and malicious burning of a building, or the aiding of burning a building. Arson is a felony. The crime is treated differently depending on the type of building.
Burning a Dwelling House
When the building burned was a "dwelling house," penalties are especially severe due to the increased threat to human life. Dwelling house is used to mean all buildings used as dwellings, including apartment houses, tenements, hotels, dormitories, hospitals and any other building where people are domiciled.
Arson laws related to dwelling houses still apply if the house was owned by the person who set fire, or whether the building was or was not occupied. It even applies to the burning of a building adjacent to a dwelling house. Penalties for this violation include prison of up to twenty (20) years, and a fine of up to $10,000.
Burning a Meeting House
The laws covering arson of a "meeting house" are generally intended to apply to any buildings and structures that are not considered "dwelling houses." Meeting houses are buildings erected for public use. This would include a church, court house, college, jail, warehouse, store, barn, ship, lumberyard, ship, street car, train car, stable and shop.
Arson laws related to meeting houses still apply if the house was owned by the person who set fire, or whether the building was or was not occupied. Penalties for burning a meeting house include prison of up to ten (10) years.
How much has to burn?
To be convicted of arson, the entire building does not have to be burned down. Some evidence of charring is enough to show damage caused by fire.
What happens after a fire?
The local fire chief conducts an investigation of the fire in order to determine the origin and cause of the fire. The State Fire Marshal investigates the causes of fires when local fire departments are unable to determine the cause of the fire, or where the fire was classified as suspicious or intentionally set. Where the investigation reveals possible criminal actions, the Fire Marshall will consult with prosecutors.
Under Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 266, Section 5A, even the attempted burning of a building is punishable by prison of up to ten (10) years. This could include placing flammable or combustible material in or up against a building in preparation to willfully attempt to set fire to the building.
Other Related Charges
A person charged with arson can also be charged with other crimes that may be related to the underlying burning of a building.
Insurance Fraud - In many cases, a building can be torched for insurance purposes. If a business owner is facing heavy losses related to their business, or if they are involved in some type of fraud and fear discovery, they may believe that if their business is burned by a fire, they can recoup losses through their insurance company. Arson for insurance purposes is punishable by prison of up to five (5) years.
Insurance companies heavily investigate fire damage, which can increase the likelihood that intentional arson is discovered. The perpetrator would not only be facing arson charges, but could face insurance fraud, in addition to having their claim denied, compounding financial losses.
There are certain "red flags" that insurers look for after a fire damage claim. These include whether the insured has a prior criminal record, what the insured's financial health and history looks like, and if they had a prior insurance loss.
Defenses to Arson
Arson charges require that the fire be wilfully and maliciously set. If the building was burned by accident, that would not be willful or malicious, and acts as a defense to a charge of arson.
Other defenses include questioning the science and investigative evidence presented against a defendant. Sometimes what prosecutors alleged to be burn patterns evidencing arson, can actually occur in accident fires as well.
An attorney experienced in defending clients before criminal arson proceedings will best be able to clarify the issues facing the client. If charged with arson of a dwelling, a meeting house, or attempted arson, a skilled lawyer can identify the elements required for the prosecution to prove their case, and defend their client in court.