Arson is a relatively common crime against property in Texas. When an individual is convicted of arson, experts say the motivation can range from terrorism to insurance fraud.
The legal definition of arson involves malicious destruction or damage to a building, vehicle, inhabited structure, vessel or any other form of real property by means of explosive device or fire. The structure, vessel, or vehicle doesn’t need to be completely destroyed to be convicted of arson.
Arson may be charged against an individual who bombs or sets afire forest land, a vehicle, or another targeted property. If you or someone you love has been charged with arson in Houston or throughout Texas, get immediate legal help.
What is an Arson Charge in Texas?
An arson charge reflects the prosecution’s belief that you maliciously and deliberately started a fire or burned a structure. To convict you of the crime, the prosecutor must provide evidence that the accused demonstrated malice in the commission of a criminal act.
A large fire can remain in the local news for weeks, so law enforcement professionals hope to quickly find the person or persons responsible. Sometimes, a suspect is arrested on slim evidence.
Arson Punishments in Texas
Texas Penal Code Section 28.02 defines arson. Broadly speaking, arson includes a range of distinctions concerning the offender’s intent and property-damages involved. Any level of arson is considered a felony in Texas. In general, the differences between the levels are as follows:
- If the defendant is found guilty of reckless damage and intentional arson (arson with injuries), he or she faces a state jail felony punishable by six months to two years in jail plus a maximum $10,000 fine.
- If the defendant is found guilty of arson with property damage, he or she intended to cause property damage. This is a second-degree felony carrying two to 20 years in prison plus a maximum $10,000 fine.
- If the defendant damaged a place of worship or a habitation, this is considered a first-degree felony.
- If the defendant showed the intent to kill, he or she may be accused of murder or capital murder. If convicted, the offender faces up to life in prison without the possibility of parole or death. A first-degree felony is punishable by a minimum five-year to maximum 99-year prison sentence plus a maximum $10,000 fine.
It’s important to note that if the defendant was found to use a deadly weapon in the commission of arson, this may enhance the penalties he or she faces, including the possibility of receiving probation or parole. In addition, a fire determined as arson is often the basis of additional charges of insurance fraud.
Motives for arson
After a suspicious fire, a Texas fire marshal investigates the scene. The marshal collects physical evidence as he or she searches for motives for the crime, such as:
- The property is owned by another party associated with a suspect
- The property is insured against fire damage
- The property is secured by a mortgage loan
In some cases, a person may be charged with arson even if fire-raising occurred accidentally. He or she may be charged with arson after setting off a fireworks display, burning a field, or another form of recklessness if the action placed others or their property in danger.
Six Motive Classifications Associated with Firesetters
Experts report that six primary motive classes are associated with arson, including:
- Vandalism, or the malicious/mischievous act of setting a fire that causes property damage, usually occurs in abandoned or vacant structures, educational facilities, brushlands, vehicles, or used to cover up another crime, e.g. theft or burglary. This type of crime often results from a form of gang initiation or peer pressure. Most often, these fires are set by juvenile offenders. The offender’s calendar and mental ages might not correspond.
- Excitement can cause those seeking recognition, attention, or thrills to set fire to occupied structures or vacant buildings and structures, trash receptacles, or dumpsters. The offender typically sets a fire in a location that’s familiar to him or her, and might remain at the scene to watch the fire burn. He or she may video or take pictures of the fire. These mementos may help investigators gather information to be used in court. Fire service members, security guards, and night watchmen are included in the classification: For example, a security guard in search of praise is the first one to report the fire. A firefighter may want others to view him or her as a hero.
- Revenge is committed in retaliation for actual or imagined injustice to the perpetrator. The revenge target may be an individual, group, society, or institutional facility. A revenge fire directed an individual or group may occur in the aftermath of a disagreement or fight. The revenge arsonist sets fire to a victim’s house, possessions, or vehicle. He or she may later be identified by the materials involved or the origin area. Revenge arson may occur when a history of domestic violence or intimate dispute is involved. In contrast, an “institutional” firesetter targets educational facilities, corporations, religious, or medical structures. He or she may be motivated to strike out against society. He or she feels persecuted and lonely. This type of arsonist may have set more than one fire.
- Concealment occurs when the offender attempts to conceal another crime, such as a burglary or murder, or in attempts to destroy records or documents. The offender believes that the victim’s identity or physical evidence will be obliterated by the fire. Although fires destroy some evidence, it probably won’t destroy bullets, guns, knives, etc.
- Extremism 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. Experts say that extremists are categorized in two types: civil disturbance/riot and terrorism. Riots-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. Terrorism’s goal is to create anarchy, fear, and confusion. The target selected in this case often has political or economic significance, e.g. police headquarters, government offices, power plants, fire headquarters, military bases, universities, or port terminals.
- Profit is often motivated by the desire for material or financial gain. A profit-motivated offender may set a fire to increase the value of a property, discharge his or her financial obligation, eliminate/intimidate a business competitor, or commit insurance fraud. A vehicle fire may occur when the owner or lessee can’t afford his or her payments. He or she may report a vehicle as stolen and then set it ablaze. The motive of this action is to collect on the insurance claim or get released from the monetary obligations associated with the vehicle. Fraud may be a motive as well. If the owner or property or business is suffering, the owner may be motivated to remove the financial problems by burning the business or property. Residential fraud occurs when the tenant or homeowner seeks to defraud the insurer. A homeowner or landlord may also burn property. If the landlord can’t rent out the property or faces the need to make extensive physical repairs, he or she may burn the property to collect money from the insurance carrier. Commercial fraud may occur when the owner seeks to destroy old equipment or to destroy records with the goal of collecting on an insurance claim.
Fire investigators use sophisticated tools today. Motive is an important aspect in proving an arson case, but it’s important to recognize that the prosecutor must tie the act of fire or explosion to the motive.
Defenses against an Arson Charge in Texas
In order to convict an individual of arson, the prosecutor must show beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant “knowingly” and “willfully” set the fire.
In a case in which a fire is accidental but caused damage, a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney may argue that he or she didn’t act with the express intention to harm or damage the property of others.
The prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant had the opportunity, intent, and access to commit an act of arson. If the prosecution’s evidence is weak, this may be grounds to dismiss the case against the defendant.
What’s more, forensic investigation of arson is a complex process that includes specific steps in the collection and analysis of evidence. If any part of the process is flawed, this may be a strong route of defense.
Don’t face an arson charge alone. The Law Office of Matthew D. Sharp stands by to analyze the details of your arson case. Contact Mr. Matthew Sharp in Houston at 713-868-6100 to schedule an initial case evaluation.