Arson - Penal Code 451/452

If you have been charged with violating California Penal Codes §451 or §452, it is important that you understand the parameters of the charge and the gravity of your situation. In times like this, an experienced defense attorney can be crucial in helping you receive the best possible result.


Arson can be defined as outlined in any of the following three categories:

A.   §451 defines arson as the “willful and malicious” burning of the property of another. This means that in order to be found guilty, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you both:

1.     Intended to do the act that burned the property; and

2.     Intended to defraud, annoy, or injure another person, or merely intend to do a wrongful act.

B.    §452 adds “recklessness” as a substitute for the “willful and malicious” requirement of §451. This means that the prosecutor can—instead of proving that your actions were willful and malicious—try and prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you both:

1.     Knew there was a substantial likelihood that your actions would cause someone else’s property to burn; and

2.     You consciously made the decision to carry on with your actions anyway.  

C.    As you have probably noticed, both §451 and §452 include the burning of someone else’s property. However, one can still be found guilty of arson for burning his own property if the purpose was fraudulent (as in the case of attempting to collect insurance proceeds), or if the fire injures another person or her property.


Arson is a serious charge and, as such, can result in a variety severe punishments including fines, jail or prison time, and may even require registration as an arson offender for the rest of your life.

There are a number of different factors that come into play when determining your sentence such as the type of property at issue, whether or not someone was injured, and whether you set the fire deliberately. Additionally, your criminal record of past convictions can enhance the sentence. For example, if you are convicted of arson and have a prior arson conviction from within the past 10 years, you may actually face life in prison without the possibility of parole.