Broadly stated, arson is the criminal act of deliberately setting fire to property. The term arson was one restricted to the burning of someone’s home, dwelling, or nearby property and was not focused on protecting the property itself, but the inhabitants of the property. However, the term arson evolved to focus on the burning aspect, rather than the endangerment aspect. Arson currently covers the deliberate burning of any type of real property and even some types of personal property. Real property refers to property that can be described as real estate and includes homes, offices, and other buildings as well as fields and land. Personal property refers to property that is movable or not fixed and refers to items like vehicles and clothing.
While the term arson refers to the deliberate setting of a fire, state laws regarding the degree of intention necessary to support an arson charge vary. In the states with the strictest statutory construction, a person must purposefully set fire to property in order to be convicted of arson. In other states, being reckless can support an arson charge. For example, pouring gasoline around a person’s home and setting fire to it would clearly support arson charges in all states, while recklessly throwing a lit cigarette into a dry field and starting a brush fire might support an arson charge in some states, but not in other states. In addition, a person may be charged with arson for damages inadvertently caused to other people’s property as a result of an intentional fire lit on the person’s own property, and the decision to prosecute will often be based upon the reasonableness and safety of the person’s intended actions.
Arson is an interesting offense because, while many cases of arson are linked to financial motives, it is also frequently a serial offense. Serial arsonists, also known as firebugs, may frequent an area, and often stay to watch firefighters extinguish the fire. It is not unusual for firebugs to also be firefighters, with experts suggesting that there are 100s of firefighter/firebugs around the country. In addition, arson is considered a warning sign for more serious pathologies; while there is no direct 100% correlation between arson and serial murders or assaults, many violent serial criminals begin with arson.
Because arson is a serious crime that involves a significant risk to property and life, it is almost always potentially a felony offense, though first offenses with minimal property damage and no harm to people may be charged as misdemeanors.