Q: What is the legal definition of arson?
A: Arson is the crime of intentionally burning a house, building, vehicle, watercraft, aircraft or other structure that can be occupied. A conviction can result in a jail term and a fine.
Ohio Revised Code 2909.02 (http://codes.ohio.gov/orc/2909.02) defines “aggravated arson” as follows:
“(A) No person, by means of fire or explosion, shall knowingly do any of the following:
(1) Create a substantial risk of serious physical harm to any person other than the offender;
(2) Cause physical harm to any occupied structure;
(3) Create, through the offer or acceptance of an agreement for hire or other consideration, a substantial risk of physical harm to any occupied structure.
(1) Whoever violates this section is guilty of aggravated arson.
(2) A violation of division (A)(1) or (3) of this section is a felony of the first degree.
(3) A violation of division (A)(2) of this section is a felony of the second degree.”
Q: What prompts people to commit arson?
A: A variety of motives may prompt someone to commit arson, but trying to get money by making false insurance claims are certainly high on the list. For example, a 75-year-old Ohio woman was sentenced to six months in prison after she was found guilty of two counts of aggravated arson and one count of insurance fraud for setting fire to her bed and breakfast and then filing a false insurance claim.
Q: What happens to the money paid by an insurance company in such a case?
A: In order to be compensated in this case, the insurance company sued the arsonist for reimbursement. The sentencing judge ordered her to pay back the insurance company more than $13,000.
Q: What about the costs associated with the fire department’s response?
A: The costs associated with the fire department’s response, as well as its investigation, are reimbursable. In this case, the sentencing judge ordered the arsonist to reimburse the fire department more than $5,000.
Q: If a firefighter had been killed in the fire, could this arsonist have faced murder charges?
A: Yes. As with other crimes, an arsonist is responsible for the consequences of this criminal misconduct, including the death of firefighters responding to a fire that is deliberately set.
Q: What is the difference between arson and aggravated arson?
A: The crime of arson is intentionally burning a building. Often, however, the act of intentionally burning a building creates serious risk of harm to people as well. “Aggravated arson” is the crime of creating a substantial risk of serious physical harm to a person other than the arsonist. For example, someone who sets fire to an occupied building creates a substantial risk that, in addition of the harm the fire does to the building, a person or persons inside the building may be harmed.
Q: How are juvenile arsonists treated?
A: Depending upon the severity of the situation, and whether persons were harmed, penalties for juvenile arsonists vary. Juvenile offenders (especially first-time offenders) are referred to programs that deal with their fire-setting behavior. The youth meet with both mental health experts and fire-prevention specialists. First-time offenders also typically face community service assignments, while repeat offenders face confinement through the Department of Youth Services. In addition, many fire departments also have effective juvenile arson prevention programs for the purpose of preventing future arson.
Q: When fire departments suspect arson, what do they do?
A: Arson investigators, who are trained in determining the “cause and origin” of fires, will conduct investigations that may involve examining burn patterns, looking for gasoline or other accelerants, and interviewing individuals. If it is determined that the fire was deliberately set, evidence is collected and submitted for forensic and submitted for forensic analysis. Once an arrest has been made, the suspect is charged with a criminal offense. An arson defendant also may be sued in a civil action. For example, if the arsonist has tried to make an insurance claim for the deliberately damaged property, the insurance company may deny the claim and then bring a civil suit against the arsonist.
Law You Can Use is a weekly consumer legal information column provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. This article was prepared by Lawrence T. Bennett, Esq., program chair, Fire Science & Emergency Management, University of Cincinnati.