Once upon a time, most arsons were economic crimes. People generally started fires for the destruction of property reasons. Today, most arsons are political crimes. Many people start fires out of anger or to make a statement. Yet arson charges and laws are essentially unchanged. In fact, after the 2020 George Floyd protests in Minnesota, a 23-year-old man was fined $12 million and sentenced to four years in prison for his role in the burning of a Minneapolis police station.1
New York’s arson laws are very similar to Minnesota’s arson laws. As outlined below, prosecutors must only prove the defendant deliberately or even recklessly started a fire. Also, as outlined below, even that minimal amount of evidence is often hard to come by. The possible lack of evidence defenses in these infractions is so substantial that a Rochester criminal defense lawyer can usually resolve these cases out of court and on defendant-friendly terms.
Types of Arson Crimes in New York
New York State has five levels of arson crimes.2 The multiple parts of Article 150 make it more difficult to prove these crimes and more straightforward to resolve them. The five types of arson are:
- Fifth Degree (Class A Misdemeanor): Intentionally causing an explosion or starting a fire that damages property,
- Fourth Degree (Class E Felony): Intentionally causing an explosion or starting a fire that recklessly damages a building or motor vehicle, unless no one other than the defendant had a legal interest in that property,
- Third Degree (Class C Felony): Intentionally damaging a motor vehicle or building by causing an explosion or starting a fire, unless “(a) no person other than the defendant had a possessory or proprietary interest in the building or motor vehicle, or if other persons had such interests, all of them consented to the defendant`s conduct, and (b) the defendant`s sole intent was to destroy or damage the building or motor vehicle for a lawful and proper purpose, and (c) the defendant had no reasonable ground to believe that his conduct might endanger the life or safety of another person or damage another building or motor vehicle,”
- Second Degree (Class B Felony): Intentionally damaging a motor vehicle or building by starting a fire, if “(a) another person who is not a participant in the crime is present in such building or motor vehicle at the time, and (b) the defendant knows that fact or the circumstances are such as to render the presence of such a person therein a reasonable possibility,” and
- First Degree (Class A-1 Felony): Using an incendiary device to start a fire or cause an explosion if someone is seriously injured in the fire and the defendant started the fire “with the expectation or receipt of financial advantage or pecuniary profit.”
All these subsections have several moving parts. The state must prove each sub-element beyond any reasonable doubt. Many of these sub-elements are challenging to prove, especially since the evidence required is so high.
Additionally, prosecutors usually push the envelope when they file charges. For example, if facts support fourth-degree arson charges, the state might file third-degree arson charges. Therefore, it’s easier for a Rochester criminal defense lawyer to reduce these charges during pretrial negotiations, especially if the evidence is weak.
Possible Defenses and Rochester Criminal Defense Lawyers
Alternate cause and shaky scientific evidence are the most common defenses in New York arson criminal cases.
Every level of arson requires prosecutors to prove the defendant deliberately set the fire. Fourth and fifth-degree arson add an “intentional” requirement. Usually, starting a fire means striking a match and lighting something flammable. Absent surveillance video or some other compelling physical evidence, it’s almost impossible to prove the difference between deliberately starting a fire and recklessly starting a fire.
Sometimes, desperate prosecutors turn to shaky scientific evidence, like burn patterns or accelerant residue, to prove the defendant deliberately set the fire. A pattern visible to the naked eye isn’t enough to prove arson, at least not beyond a reasonable doubt.
Other vital factors requiring much more rigorous scientific testing include distortion, melting, color changes, charring, oxidation, and structural collapse. Several variables affect these test results. Such as fire suppression activities, the temperature of the heat source, the material itself, ventilation, and the length of exposure.
There’s a big difference between a criminal arrest and a criminal conviction. Contact the Law Office of Frank Ciardi for a free consultation with an experienced Rochester criminal attorney. Convenient payment plans are available.