Our city currently employs a response team of nearly two dozen on its arson and bomb squad. They process crime scenes, perform case follow-up, provide expert testimony, and work with a K9 unit on a 24-hour a day rotation, investigating fire incidents around the Ft. Worth area. Every member of this team is a state-certified firefighter, police officer, or EMT/paramedic.
This year, in particular, the team has been dedicated to honing in on crimes of arson.
Why the laser focus?
Well, according to local government reporting, “arson causes an estimated $1 million in fire loss annually,” with 600 origin and cause investigations conducted each year in Fort Worth alone.
They want to reduce this – reduce property loss; reduce death; reduce firefighter injury.
This strong desire to go after potential arsonists could result in you finding yourself in front of a judge facing felony charges, with a knowledgeable Tarrant County criminal defense attorney your only hope.
In the hopes of helping you avoid this outcome – and realize that a charge is not a conviction – today’s post is going to take a look at what constitutes arson, as well as the charges, jail time, and fines Texas law outlines for these crimes.
Arson in Texas Is a Serious Crime
Texas Penal Code says that someone in Texas commits arson by starting a fire (or causing an explosion) with the intent to damage or destroy whatever’s being set ablaze. Statistics show the most common types of arson include vehicle, residential, and commercial fires. The most common motives are revenge and insurance fraud.
In fact, the only time a fire or fire-related explosion which results in property damage and/or personal injury is not considered arson is
- during a controlled burn or
- when a permit or other form of officially written authorization is obtained prior to starting it.
Also important to note is that other, more serious criminal charges may be stacked with an arson charge if any death or serious bodily injuries occur as a result of setting the fire or explosion.
How Intent and Circumstance Impact Texas Arson Charges
We reiterate: the law states that arson requires intent. That is unless prosecutors can prove recklessness. So, either a person must have had the intent to damage or destroy whatever property was set on fire or there must be proof of recklessness in starting it.
There are three specific sets of circumstance addressed in the statute: wide open spaces, inside city limits, and when an “arsonist” is acting recklessly. Let’s take a closer look.
Wide Open Spaces
Conduct which can constitute arson includes setting fire with an intention to damage or destroy fences, vegetation, or structures on open-space land.
Within City Limits
Starting a fire with the intent of damaging a home, building, or vehicle which you know is within city limits, insured, subject to a security interest (like a bank mortgage), or located on a property which is not your own is arson, too.
When a person sets a fire recklessly or without regard for whether it will endanger another person’s life, safety, or belongings, this is also classified as arson.
It is important to note that Texas law does not require the actual property to be damaged in order to charge an arsonist with a crime. Sometimes arson charges are filed without a fire ever even continuing after ignition.
When Texas Arson Is Not a Second-Degree Felony
The vast majority of Texas arson crimes are charged as a felony of the second degree, which typically carries 2-20 years in prison. However, there are particular scenarios when criminal arson becomes one of several other types of felony:
First-Degree Felony Arson
When a fire is intentionally set to specifically to damage or destroy a place of worship and actual bodily injury (or death) results, the charge is a felony in the first degree. First-degree arson can leave you facing a five-year to life sentence.
Third-Degree Felony Arson
Fires recklessly started, and specifically related to controlled substance manufacturing that causes actual bodily injury (or death), can result in third-degree felony charges. A conviction for this charge can mean 2-10 years in prison.
State Jail Felony Arson
There are two scenarios under this umbrella.
- When no bodily injury (or death) occurs, but damage to a building, habitation, or vehicle does, as a direct result of a reckless drug-related fire
- OR a non-drug-related fire that was intentionally set, but resulted in reckless damage or destruction.
Either of these situations can end in a prison sentence of six months to two years.
Any felony arson conviction is always subject to a fine of $10,000 regardless of its degree. The imposition of such is purely up to the court’s discretion.
As you can see, arson charges are nothing to take lightly. With law enforcement officials working hard to reduce these types of crimes in our area, building a strong defense is more important than ever.
About the Author:
Brandon Fulgham has an in-depth understanding of both Texas law and Texans themselves. Before practicing law here, he received his undergraduate degree from TCU, and his law degree from South Texas College of Law in Houston. After graduation, he worked in District Attorneys’ offices as a prosecutor, building cases designed to put people behind bars. Now, he uses that knowledge to protect the rights of people in and around Fort Worth, making sure they receive the strongest possible defense when they find themselves on the wrong side of the law. He has been recognized for his work by The National Trial Lawyers, Fort Worth Magazine, and others.