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Arson

From Academic Kids

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A car after it was set on fire.

Arson is the crime of setting a fire with intent to cause damage. The common law definition of arson originally contained four elements; the crime required the malicious act of burning the dwelling of another person. Although arson fires are referred to as incendiary, not all incendiary fires are considered arson, the difference being malicious intent.

The first element, "malice," required that the person responsible for the burning must have intended the structure to be damaged by fire, or must have known that there was an obvious risk that the structure would be damaged and shown reckless disregard for this risk. This element of the common law has been changed by statutes in many jurisdictions. Willful or negligent misconduct resulting in a forest fire, e.g., tossing a spent match or cigarette out of a vehicle in a closed area, is also subject to prosecution under many arson statutes.

The second element, "burning," required that the fire cause actual damage to the property. Under the quaint language of the common law courts "scorching" of the surface was not enough; the property had to at least suffer "charring," meaning that there had to be some damage to the fiber of the wood or other such material from which the dwelling was constructed.

The third element was that the structure had to be a "dwelling" - a place where another person regularly slept (even if the structure was also used as a business, or was temporarily abandoned at the time). This requirement has also been largely abandoned under modern statutes. Where the common law limited arson to setting fire to dwellings, statutes have expanded the crime to include the burning of other structures, such as bridges, vehicles, and private property.

The fourth element required that the dwelling be the property of another. Because the common law developed long before the advent of fire insurance, it was inconceivable that a person would burn their own dwelling, and a person could not be held accountable for such an act. A separate common law crime called "houseburning" could be used to deal with a person who burned their own house if that act created a danger to the homes of others. Under modern arson statutes, however, setting fire to one's own property to defraud an insurance company is also a form of arson.

Very often statutes distinguish several degrees of arson. For example arson committed at night is usually deemed as being more serious than that committed during daytime. These statutes may also address the use of Petrol Bombs or accelerants, which can cause more severe and widespread destruction with little effort.

See also

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