What is Arson of an Occupied Structure in Arizona?

ARS 13-1704 criminalizes arson of an inhabited building. This is the most serious form of arson because of the risk to life involved in setting fire to a building with people inside. Arson of an occupied structure is therefore a very serious crime in Arizona and is accordingly classified as a class 2 felony–one of the most severely punished types of criminal charges in the state.

A.R.S. § 13-1704 Defined

ARS 13-1704 states, “A person commits arson of an occupied structure by knowingly and unlawfully damaging an occupied structure by knowingly causing a fire or explosion.”

Important Definitions to Understanding Arson Laws

Although Arizona’s arson statute seems fairly straightforward, the specific legal terms used that are precisely defined by another law called ARS 13-1701. These definitions include:

  • Damage: Any physical or visual impairment of any surface.
  • Structure: Any building, object, vehicle, watercraft, aircraft or place with sides and a floor, used for lodging, business, transportation, recreation or storage

The legal term “structure” has a wide definition, and can include cars, boats, airplanes, and other things you might not typically think of as “structures.”

  • Occupied Structure: Any structure in which one or more human beings either is or is likely to be present or so near as to be in equivalent danger at the time the fire or explosion occurs. The term includes any dwelling house, whether occupied, unoccupied or vacant.

According to these definitions, “arson of an occupied structure” can therefore be charged in cases that might fall outside of the common-sense definition of the term.

Example: A person knowingly sets fire to an unoccupied residential home. There are no people inside the home and the person setting fire to the home knows this. Nonetheless, the action may be charged as “arson of an occupied structure” because an “occupied structure” includes any dwelling house–even a vacant one.

Penalties for Arson of an Occupied Structure

ARS 13-1704 is a class 2 felony. Felonies are punishable depending on how many prior felony convictions the defendant has.

  • No prior felony convictions: Probation or 3 to 12.5 years in prison
  • One prior felony: 4.5 to 23 years
  • Two or more prior felonies: 10.5 to 35 years

Defenses to Arson

  • No Intent to Start Fire: Arson charges hinge on the state’s ability to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant started a fire intentionally or knowingly. However, there are a number of household accidents that can occur to result in a fire being started without the required intent. If a person was merely reckless or negligent (i.e., the person didn’t mean to start the fire even if his actions weren’t safe), then the state cannot prove an arson charge.

Example: A person plugs in multiple frayed electrical cords into a wall outlet. The wires of the cords are exposed in such a way that they cause a fire to start. The fire burns down the house. The person’s actions may have been ill-advised and negligent, but they were not intentional in starting the fire, so no arson was committed.

  • No Intent to Damage Property: Another way that the required criminal intent may be lacking in an arson case is where the person starts the fire intentionally but causes damage unintentionally.

Example: A person is cooking a meal on the stovetop and walks away from it take care of other household chores. While doing so, he gets caught up in the other chores and forgets about the burning stovetop. The fire on the stove top causes the pot to start burning, which then lights the kitchen counter on fire and the house burns down. Again, even though the initial fire was intentionally started, the person who started it did not intend to cause any damage. The damage was a result of negligent actions, not intentional criminal conduct.

How Salwin Law Can Help You

If you’ve been charged with arson of an occupied structure, a skilled criminal defense attorney can provide you with a solid defense. Salwin Law offers a free consultation on property crime cases, and together we can help you figure out ways to minimize the effect these charges will have on your life.

Call Salwin Law Group PLLC today at (480) 702-1789, or contact us online to make your appointment.