Both New Jersey and federal law define the crime of arson. Persons charged with arson will be prosecuted in either State or federal court, depending on which court has jurisdiction.
This site provides a basic orientation as to both New Jersey and federal arson. The discussion on this site is rather general. These generalities will be dwarfed by the particular facts in any given arson case. Persons facing, or possibly facing arson charges need to speak to a qualified and experienced criminal defense lawyer before discussing the matter with anyone else.
Arson Charges Under New Jersey Law
The New Jersey criminal statute that deals with arson is N.J.S. 2C:17-1. Arson under New Jersey law comes in two varieties: “Ordinary” arson and aggravated arson. “Ordinary” arson is a “lesser included offense” of aggravated arson. Under present New Jersey law, records of conviction for either variety of arson can never be expunged. We will first discuss aggravated arson. Our discussion will then move on to ordinary arson.
A person is guilty of aggravated arson if he starts a fire or causes an explosion, whether on his own property or another's, under any of the following circumstances:
1. He purposely or knowingly exposes someone else to death or bodily injury; or
2. His purpose is to destroy a building or structure that belongs to someone else; or
3. His pupose is to collect insurance for the destruction or damage to such property under circumstances that recklessly exposed another person to death or bodily injury; or
4. His purpose in destroying or damaging a structure is to exempt the structure, completely or partially, from the provisions of any State, county, or local zoning, planning, or building law, regulation, ordinance, or enactment, under circumstances that recklessly place any other person in danger of death or bodily injury; or
5. His purpose is to destroy or damage a forest.
“Destroy” means to demolish or to render useless or to render completely ineffective for its intended use.
“Structure” includes any building, room, ship, vessel, car, vehicle, or airplane. It also means any place adapted for overnight accommodation of persons or for carrying on business therein whether or not a person is actually present.
New Jersey defines “forest” to include brush land, grass land, salt marsh, wooded area, and any combination thereof. This would even include open space area, public lands, wetlands, park lands, natural habitats, a State conservation area, a wildlife refuge area or any other designated undeveloped open space. New Jersey considers such areas as forests, even when they are not subject to specific protection under law.
Having defined aggravated arson, we can now move on to “ordinary” arson. The two offenses are quite similar. “Ordinary” arson differs from aggravated arson in that ordinary arson has fewer elements, or requires lower states of mind than aggravated arson.
A person is guilty of (non-aggravated) arson if he starts a fire or causes an explosion, whether on his own property or another's under any of the following circumstances:
1. He recklessly places another person in danger of death or bodily injury; or
2. He recklessly places a building or structure of another in danger of damage or destruction; or
3. His purpose is to collect insurance for the destruction or damage to the property; or
4. His purpose is to destroy or damage a structure in order to exempt the structure, completely or partially, from the provisions of any State, county or local zoning, planning or building law, regulation, ordinance or enactment; or
5. He recklessly places a forest in danger of damage or destruction.
Note that it is not necessary that significant damage be done. It is only necessary that a fire be started or an explosion be caused for one or more of the purposes, or under one or more of the circumstances just described. The lack of success of the perpetrator does not matter.
When a person is convicted in a New Jersey state court of aggravated arson, it is virtually certain that the court will sentence that person to a term in State Prison. This term can be for up to ten years. Under certain circumstances it can be even longer. Even convictions for ordinary arson expose a person to a term in State Prison of up to five years. Additionally, under current New Jersey law, records relating to a conviction for any kind of arson can never be expunged. This is true regardless of how much time passes following the conviction.
Arson Under Federal Law
Arson can also occur within the “special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States.” Those arsons are investigated by the FBI. They are prosecuted in federal court, under federal law.
The federal law involved is 18 U.S.C. 81. That statute makes it a federal crime to willfully and maliciously set fire to or burn any “building, structure or vessel, any machinery or building materials or supplies, military or naval stores, munitions of war, or any structural aids or appliances for navigation or shipping.” Persons convicted of this offense are exposed to a term in federal prison of up to twenty-five years. If the structure in question is a dwelling, or if the life of any person is jeopardized, then the person, if convicted, faces a term of imprisonment for up to life.
New Jersey and Federal Arson--Final Thoughts
Allan Marain is a criminal lawyer in New Jersey. He has forty-five years experience. He has successfully represented clients accused of arson and aggravated arson. Persons charged with, or suspected of any kind of arson should meet with an experienced New Jersey criminal defense lawyer. The lawyer will need time to adequately investigate the charges and prepare a defense. It will often be necessary to find, retain, and prepare experts. Persons facing, or possibly facing, arson charges, should contact a New Jersey criminal defense lawyer immediately.