Arson is a crime at common law, originally defined as “the malicious burning of the dwelling of another.” However, the definition changes slightly depending upon the jurisdiction. For some jurisdictions, arson is the intentional setting of a fire to a building, others it is the intentional setting of a fire to a building where people live. Additionally, there are some minor differences between arson at the state and federal level.
Arson as a State Crime
Most states no longer require that the property damaged or destroyed be a dwelling or even a building. Generally, the act of knowingly burning personal property without consent or with unlawful intent is enough to constitute arson. Although arson is generally a felony, many State laws include different degrees of severity depending on the defendant's intent, how the fire or explosion was caused, and whether the fire or explosion resulted in physical injury or death. The penalties associated with a conviction of arson vary widely depending on the degree of arson. For example, the New York Penal Law includes five possible degrees of arson, where the fifth degree is a class A misdemeanor punishable by no more than year in jail, and the first degree is a class A-1 felony carrying a minimum sentence of 15 years and a maximum sentence of 25 years. See NY Penal Law Article 70.
Arson as a Federal Crime
Under 18 U.S.C. § 844(i), it is a federal crime to damage or destroy, "by means of fire or an explosive, any . . . property used in interstate or foreign commerce or in any activity affecting interstate or foreign commerce." Any person found guilty of arson under this statute may be sentenced to a maximum of 20 years in jail, with a minimum of 5 years. If a violation resulted in personal injury to any person, the maximum sentence is 40 years in jail, with a minimum of 7 years. In Jones v. U.S., 529 U.S. 848 (2000), the Supreme Court held that arson of an owner-occupied private residence not used for any commercial purpose is not subject to federal prosecution under § 844(i), which covers only property used in an activity affecting commerce.
See also: Arson with intent to defraud an insurer; United States v. Miller, 246 Fed.Appx. 369, 372 (6th Cir. 2007)
[Last updated in June of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]