New Jersey Law defines Arson as the intentional or reckless causing of a fire or explosion. Said differently, it is unlawfully starting a fire. Arson is typically charged in the context of the unlawful burning of a building or structure to collect the insurance or to destroy a building for some other unlawful reason. One can also be charged with arson if the property set on fire is a vehicle or land. The charge of arson also applies if the fire or explosion recklessly places others in danger or whose actions result in a forest fire.
Arson can be charged as a First, Second, Third or Fourth degree crime in New Jersey. The level of the charge depends upon the intent of the defendant, the target of the fire, whether other persons or property were put in danger, and whether payment to commit the act was involved. The crime of Arson is set forth in N.J.S.A. 2C:17-1.
Arson, First Degree
Arson is a first degree crime if it is an “Arson for Hire.” Any person who, directly or indirectly, pays or accepts or offers to pay or accept any form of compensation for the purpose of starting a fire or causing an explosion is guilty of arson in the first degree, regardless of whether any consideration is actually exchanged. Arson is also a crime of the first degree if the target of the arson was a church, synagogue or other place of worship.
A crime of the first degree typically carries a sentencing range of 10-20 years in New Jersey State Prison with a presumption of imprisonment. In the case of an arson conviction involving a place of worship, there is a mandatory minimum term of fifteen (15) years without parole. Both convictions carry a potential fine of $200,000.00.
Arson, Second Degree
Like aggravated assault, arson can also be considered aggravated. In this case, it is considered a second degree crime. A person is guilty of aggravated arson if he starts a fire or causes an explosion, whether on his own property or another’s, that falls under the following criteria:
- Knowing it will put another person in danger of death or bodily injury;
- Intending to destroy a structure or building belonging to another person or entity;
- With the intent of collecting insurance money on the damaged or destroyed property and places another person in danger of death or bodily harm;
- In an attempt to exempt the structure from the zoning, building, land or other regulations of a government entity and places another person in danger of death or bodily harm;
- Intentionally places a forest in danger of destruction or great harm.
A crime of the second degree carries a prison sentence of five (5) to ten (10) years in New Jersey State Prison. Typically, there is a presumption of imprisonment on a crime of the second degree. In the case of arson, the statute specifically requires a term of imprisonment and does not allow the court to issue a non-custodial sentence. A conviction also carries a potential fine of up to $150,000.00. Finally, defendants can also be liable for the costs associated with any emergency service personnel dispatched to respond to the fire.
Arson, Third Degree
Arson is a crime of the third degree if the defendant intentionally started the fire with the intent to harm or destroy the structure and recklessly – but not purposely – places another person in danger of death or bodily harm or harm or destruction to a structure. The same circumstances apply as to second degree arson, but rather than purposeful conduct, the prosecution must only prove reckless conduct.
A crime of the third degree carries with it a potential term of imprisonment of three (3) to five (5) years. If the defendant has no prior convictions there is a presumption of non-incarceration. A conviction of a third degree crime carries a potential fine of up to $15,000.00.
Arson, Fourth Degree
Arson is a crime to the fourth degree if the defendant has a legal, contractual or official duty to prevent or fight a fire and fails to control or to take reasonable steps to put out a fire that is endangering someone’s life or a substantial portion of someone else’s property when he can do so without substantial risk to himself. Fourth degree arson may also apply if the defendant fails to promptly report a fire in certain circumstances. Lastly, a person can be found guilty of arson in the fourth degree if he fails to control or report a fire that was started, albeit lawfully, by him or with his assent, or on a property under his custody or control.
A crime of the fourth degree carries with it a potential term of imprisonment of up to eighteen (18) months in New Jersey State Prison. If the defendant has no prior convictions there is a presumption of non-incarceration. A conviction of a fourth degree arson crime carries a potential fine of up to $10,000.00.
Collateral Consequences of an Arson Conviction
Aside from the above consequences, there are significant and permanent collateral consequences of an Arson conviction in New Jersey. Arson convictions cannot be expunged (removed) from your criminal record. This can affect your ability to obtain employment, be accepted to college, obtain professional licenses and can negatively affect your credit. If you are not a US citizen, an arson conviction can impact your citizenship status in the United States.
Speak with an Arson Defense Attorney
Whether you are an adult or a juvenile arrested on an arson charge in Burlington County, you should contact a criminal defense attorney immediately. A defense is multifaceted and needs to start immediately. You should speak with an attorney to learn your rights and legal options. A zealous defense will typically include obtaining a reconstruction expert to refute any expert presented by the State. Experienced counsel will also challenge the credibility and integrity of all of the State’s witnesses as well as the investigation of the fire. If a trial is not your best option, steps are taken to obtain a plea that minimizes the custodial and collateral consequences.