Texas Arson Laws and Penalties
- November 9, 2016
- The Law Office of Greg Tsioros
- Comments Off on Texas Arson Laws and Penalties
Arson Laws in Texas
In Texas, a person who intentionally sets fire to a structure or property may face severe punishments. While starting a fire in certain circumstances is perfectly legal, criminal penalties may apply if that fire was set for malicious purposes. There are different degrees to the crime of arson and a person may face various charges depending on the severity of a particular case.
For example, in some cases, a person might face enhanced charges if their act of arson endangered or harmed other people. Read on to find out more about the way that the crime of arson is investigated and penalized in the state of Texas.
What Is Arson?
According to Section 28.02 of the Texas Penal Code, a criminal act of arson occurs when a person starts a fire or causes an explosion with intent to destroy or damage:
- Any vegetation, fence, or structure on open-space land
- Any building, habitation, or vehicle
More specifically, arson charges can be filed if a person starts a fire or causes an explosion on a piece of property while they know that the property belongs to another person, that the property is insured against fire damage or when they are reckless about the fact that their actions could endanger the safety of other people.
Under the law, it is not necessary for an arson fire to actually continue growing and damage or destroy a structure or property. If a person simply starts a fire with the intent to cause such damage, they may be arrested and charged with arson, whether or not that damage actually occurs.
The line between arson and simply starting a fire can sometimes be hard to detect. It’s helpful to consider some examples to see where these differences lie.
Michael has just finished clearing some brush on his property and he starts a fire to get rid of the dead limbs, trees and debris. As long as he is on his property, is not violating any city ordinances and he has no criminal intent, this act is completely legal and it is not considered arson. However, if Michael is careless or reckless about containing the fire and it spreads, causing damage to his neighbor’s property, he may be charged with arson.
In another example, Frank takes out an insurance policy on his home that specifically covers fire damage. He then sets fire to his own home and it burns to the ground. Frank hopes to collect an insurance payout but an investigation discovers that he used gasoline as an accelerant to start the blaze. Frank may be charged with arson because he deliberately set a fire in order to collect an insurance payout. These charges can apply even though Frank set fire to his own property.
In short, any deliberate or reckless act which causes a fire or explosion in order to accomplish some sort of criminal goal may result in arrest, prosecution and penalties.
How Arson Is Investigated
When a fire or an explosion causes damage to a property, law enforcement officers and fire department officers may conduct an investigation to determine the source of the blaze. This is usually done to find out how and why the fire occurred and this information may be used for insurance purposes.
However, if the investigation discovers some elements that indicate that the fire was intentionally set, a criminal investigation may be launched. In most cases, the investigating officials will typically order a criminal investigation if they discover some sort of evidence that someone behaved intentionally or recklessly in regards to the ignition of the fire.
This type of evidence may include things like:
- An accelerant, such as gasoline or lighter fluid
- Matches, lighters or other types of fire starters
- Suspicious circumstances, such as a fire insurance policy that was recently purchased or animosity between the property owner and possible suspects
- A fire that spread unusually rapidly or that seemed to be targeted
- Illegal activities that caused a fire or explosion, such as the manufacture of drugs like methamphetamine
If any of these types of evidence are uncovered, law enforcement can begin looking for suspects. In the course of the investigation, they will interview the property owners, neighbors and anyone who saw the fire take place. They may try to find out if the property owner was in financial trouble, if they had received any recent threats or if they have a history of manufacturing drugs.
Once law enforcement has found a suspect or suspects, they may continue investigating to try to link a suspect to the source of the fire. This may include searching for clues like fingerprints, DNA evidence or anything left at the scene of the fire that can be traced back to one or more people.
If a suspect can be tied to the fire, charges can be filed and a court case can proceed. In a criminal trial for arson, the prosecution must provide evidence that a person actually caused the blaze and that they displayed criminal intent or negligence. To do this, they may submit evidence which shows that a suspect had something to gain from causing the fire, such as monetary gain or personal revenge.
It is not always necessary to prove that a person intentionally caused a fire in order to reach a verdict of guilty in an arson case. For example, if the prosecution can show that a defendant behaved with recklessness, as in the case of a fire that got out of hand or in the case of drug manufacturing, there may be sufficient evidence to reach a conviction.
The penalties for an arson conviction can be very serious. Arson is a second degree felony charge in most cases, which is punishable by:
- Two to 20 years in state prison
- A fine of up to $10,000
In some cases, arson charges can be enhanced. For example, if any people were present in a building which was burned or if the target of the arson was a home or a place of worship, the charge may be upgraded. If a home or place of worship is targeted for arson of if anyone suffered bodily injury or death as the result of the fire, the crime can be upgraded to a first degree felony offense. This crime is punishable by:
- Five to 99 years or life in prison
- A fine of up to $10,000
A person who recklessly starts a fire which damages property or a person who causes a fire or an explosion as the result of manufacturing drugs may face a state jail felony charge. This offense is punishable by:
- Up to two years in state jail
- A fine of up to $10,000
In any case of arson, the charges can usually be enhanced if the prosecution can show that the defendant caused a fire which resulted in serious bodily injury or death.