Houston Arson Attorney: The Law Office of Matthew D. Sharp
Occasionally, news outlets in Texas cover a story about a fire that blazed out of control, causing significant property damage. A large-scale fire can remain in the local news for weeks, so law enforcement professionals typically work quickly to find the person or persons responsible—sometimes resulting in a suspect being arrested for arson on slim evidence.
Arson is a serious crime that can be punished severely, so it’s crucial to understand your rights and seek advice from an experienced arson attorney if you’re accused of this crime in Houston.
What is arson?
According to Chapter 28 of the Texas Penal Code, arson is defined as intentionally or recklessly starting a fire or explosion with intent to cause damage to property or with disregard for the safety of property or other people.
In Texas, a person can be charged with and convicted of arson even if they started a fire that burned out without causing any damage. As long as the person who started the fire had the intent to cause damage, they may be charged with arson.
Even a fire that’s started accidentally can lead to a defendant being charged with arson in some cases. These charges may stem from any of the following:
- Burning brush in a field
- Setting off fireworks
- Illegal activity, such as manufacturing methamphetamine
- Other acts of recklessness that put other people or property in danger
When is a fire that causes damage NOT considered arson?
A fire or fire-related explosion is not considered an arson crime if the following is true:
- The fire is started during a controlled burn on open-space land; or
- A permit or other official written authorization is obtained before starting it.
Why do people intentionally commit arson?
Arson is committed for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most common reason for committing arson is to damage a structure or property. However, there are several different reasons why a person might choose to commit this type of crime.
- Vandalism. Vandalism, or the malicious/mischievous act of setting a fire that causes property damage, usually occurs in abandoned or vacant structures, educational facilities, brushlands, or vehicles. Most often, these fires are set by juvenile offenders.
- Fame. The idea of notoriety can cause those seeking recognition, attention or thrills to set fire to occupied structures or vacant buildings. The offender typically sets a fire in a location that’s familiar to them, and they often remain at the scene to watch the fire burn. They may also take pictures or videos of the fire as a memento.
- Revenge. Revenge is a common motivation for arson in retaliation for actual or imagined injustices to the perpetrator and often happens when there is a history of domestic violence or an intimate dispute. These revenge fires may accidentally or intentionally result in injury or death and lead to murder or assault charges as well.
- Concealment. Concealment arson occurs when the offender attempts to cover up another crime, such as a burglary or murder, or in an attempt to destroy records or documents. The offender hopes that the victim’s identity or physical evidence will be obliterated by the fire.
- Extremism. Extremist arson is often committed to further religious, social or political causes. This type of arsonist may work alone or in a group. An extremist is likely to select a target with care and plan the crime in an organized manner. The goal of terrorism is to create anarchy, fear and confusion. The targets selected in these cases often have political or economic significance, e.g., police headquarters, government offices, power plants, fire headquarters, military bases, universities or port terminals.
- Civil disturbance. Civil disturbance fires occur during a riot and may be accompanied by looting or vandalism. This sort of incident may occur after a sports event, court proceeding, or other high-profile incidents.
- Financial gain. Financial gain from insurance payouts is often the motivation for arson. A profit-motivated offender may set a fire to increase the value of a property, discharge their financial obligation, eliminate/intimidate a business competitor, or commit insurance fraud. For instance, a vehicle fire may occur when the owner or lessee can’t afford their payments. The motive of this action is to collect on the insurance claim or get released from the monetary obligations associated with the vehicle.
Ultimately, the motivations and intentions that are involved in a particular arson case can have a powerful impact on the type of charges that are filed.
For example, a person who burns down his neighbor’s barn after recklessly starting a fire to clear some brush may not be penalized as harshly as a person who sets fire to their own house in order to collect money through insurance fraud.
What’s the process for investigating an arson case in Texas?
In Texas, arson is classified as a property offense. In the event of a fire, a mayor, fire chief, police chief, judge, insurance company or insurance policyholder can ask the State Fire Marshal to investigate. During this time, all suspects will be under heavy scrutiny. Not only will the fire marshal look for motives in the crime, but they will also collect physical evidence that supports a motive in the case.
If the State Fire Marshal, after their investigation, believes there is enough evidence to charge someone for arson, attempted arson, conspiracy to commit fraud, or other offenses, then they will refer the case to the appropriate prosecuting attorney who has jurisdiction.
The principal phases of an investigation include:
- Scene assessment. Investigators assess the fire scene to determine the origin (where the fire started) and the cause (what ignited the fire). They examine the fire patterns, burn patterns and other physical evidence to gain insights into the fire’s origin and spread.
- Collection of evidence. Investigators collect physical evidence from the fire scene, such as debris, samples of accelerants (if suspected) and any other relevant materials.
- Laboratory analysis. Collected evidence is sent to a laboratory for analysis. Forensic scientists examine the samples to identify the presence of accelerants or other substances that may have contributed to the fire.
- Witness interviews. Investigators interview witnesses, including individuals who were present at the scene or have knowledge related to the incident. They gather information about the events leading up to the fire, any suspicious activities or behaviors, and other relevant details that may help establish the cause and identify potential suspects.
- Collaboration with experts. In complex arson cases, investigators may collaborate with experts such as forensic chemists, electrical engineers or fire behavior analysts to assist in understanding the fire dynamics, identifying potential causes and ruling out accidental factors.
- Cooperation with law enforcement and prosecution. If the investigation determines that a crime has occurred, investigators work closely with law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to build a case against the suspected arsonist. This may involve providing testimony, presenting evidence in court and supporting the legal proceedings.
Legal penalties for arson in Texas
The penalties associated with a conviction for an arson crime can be very serious. They frequently include incarceration and steep fines of up to $10,000 and may even involve court-mandated restitution to the owner of the damaged property.
In Texas, there are different felony charges associated with arson depending on the circumstances of the case.
Third-degree arson felony
A third-degree felony fire is recklessly started while manufacturing a controlled substance that also causes bodily injury or death. The penalty for third-degree arson is imprisonment for 2 to 10 years.
Second-degree arson felony
The most common arson felony is a second-degree felony, which is defined as intentionally starting a fire or explosion for the purpose of destroying or damaging property. The penalty for this crime is 2 to 20 years in prison.
First-degree arson felony
First-degree arson has the same elements as second-degree arson, with the additional element of bodily injury or death or an intent to specifically damage or destroy a habitation or place of worship. The penalty for first-degree arson is imprisonment for 5 years to life.
State jail arson felony
The elements of a state jail arson felony all involve recklessness:
- A fire that is recklessly started while manufacturing a controlled substance that damages any building, habitation or vehicle (without bodily injury).
- A fire that is intentionally started and results in reckless damage or destruction to buildings or reckless injury or death (not involving a controlled substance).
A person who intentionally starts a fire or explosion that results in injury or death can only be convicted of a state jail felony if they had no intention to cause harm. The penalty for state jail arson is imprisonment for 6 months to 2 years.
Since the possible punishments for arson are so severe, it’s imperative for accused individuals to get in touch with an arson attorney as soon as possible.
What defenses can be used against arson charges in Texas?
To convict a defendant of arson, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the suspect “knowingly” and “willfully” set the fire.
In cases in which a fire accidentally burned out of control and caused damage, a skilled criminal defense attorney can argue that the defendant did not act with the intent to damage property or harm others. If the attorney can convince a jury that the fire was started accidently, the charge might be lowered to a less serious offense.
In other cases, the prosecution must determine beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had the intent, access and opportunity to complete an act of arson. The slightest weakness in the prosecution’s evidence against a defendant may be grounds for defense.
Additionally, the forensic arson investigation is a complicated process that involves specialized steps in collecting and analyzing evidence. Any flaw in the process of the investigation, from crime scene errors to collection errors, may be a route of defense.
Contact an experienced Houston arson defense attorney
Arson is a serious crime, and anyone who’s charged with an arson offense in Houston needs an experienced arson defense attorney. In arson cases, the issue of intent is critical. For example, the difference between a state jail felony conviction and a second-degree felony conviction can be found in the issue of intent.
Have you been charged with arson in Texas?