According to the U.S. Fire Administration, there were about 1,240,000 fires in 2013. Spread evenly across the year, that’s an astounding daily average of nearly 3,400 fires. While many of these fires are successfully contained, others grow into uncontrollable blazes, destroying billions of dollars in property, causing numerous injuries, and claiming thousands of lives. But what if a fire was started by accident? Can the person responsible be criminally prosecuted? Salt Lake City arson attorney Darwin Overson explains whether you can be charged with arson in Utah if you didn’t mean to cause a fire.
Can You Be Charged with Arson if You Accidentally Cause a Fire?
In the legal field, precision and detail are incredibly important. Utah’s criminal code enumerates hundreds of different offenses, and every single one has its own, highly specific definition.
These definitions often have multiple segments, each of which are individually known as “elements of the offense.” For example, based on the definition supplied by Utah Code § 76-5-102, the elements of the offense of assault are that a person:
- Commits, or attempts to commit, an act involving “unlawful force or violence.”
- The act or attempted act injured another person, or created a risk of injury.
The prosecutor must prove both of these elements of the offense, or the defendant cannot be convicted of assault. The same basic principle applies to arson charges: the prosecutor must prove every element of the offense of arson in order for the defendant to be convicted of arson.
The question is, what are these elements?
The answer can be found in Utah Code § 76-6-102. This statute defines the crime of arson as follows:
“A person is guilty of arson if, under circumstances not amounting to aggravated arson, the person by means of fire or explosives unlawfully and intentionally damages: (a) any property with intention of defrauding an insurer; or (b) the property of another.”
From that definition, let’s break down each individual element of the offense:
- The person uses fire or explosives.
- The person’s acts stop short of aggravated arson (Utah Code § 76-6-103), a related but more serious crime.
- The person acts unlawfully, meaning they don’t have legal authority to commit the act.
- The person acts intentionally.
- The person’s intent is to either:
- Damage another person’s property.
- Damage their own property in order to collect insurance money.
As you can see, Utah’s definition of arson specifies intentional acts. However, that doesn’t mean you’re off the legal hook if you start a fire accidentally. Even though you can’t be charged with arson – which, as we’ve just established, requires intent – you can be charged with a lesser-known offense called “reckless burning.”
What Happens if You Unintentionally Start a Forest Fire in Utah?
Reckless burning is related to arson in that both involve starting a fire. However, similar to the way intent separates murder from manslaughter, intent separates arson from reckless burning. Whereas arson is a deliberate act, reckless burning involves acting recklessly (as you have probably guessed from the name).
Recklessness, like intent, is a common element of many criminal offenses. For instance, you’ve probably heard of crimes like reckless driving or reckless endangerment. Utah defines recklessness as “willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property,” which means you knew about and ignored a risk that someone could be injured, or that property could be damaged. If you were reckless, you didn’t try to cause injury, but you disregarded the possibility that an injury could occur.
From this basic definition, there are four ways you can be charged with reckless burning:
- You recklessly started a fire that endangered human life – for example, fooling around with fireworks when you knew there was a major risk of fire damage and/or injury.
- You started or tended a fire, but didn’t make reasonable efforts to remove fire hazards from the area or keep the fire contained – for example, failing to clear a safe fire pit while you were out camping.
- You damaged another person’s property by causing an explosion, or using fire recklessly.
- You started a fire and knew it would spread and cause danger, but didn’t make reasonable efforts to control the blaze or contact a fire department. (In this scenario, it actually doesn’t matter if you acted recklessly, as the statue specifies “having started a fire, whether recklessly or not” under Utah Code § 76-6-104(1)(b).)
If the fire is on a major scale, like a forest fire that burns many acres of land, a different statute applies. If you cause an explosion, a forest fire, or any other type of major fire or disaster that “causes widespread injury” or property damage, but the circumstances don’t fit the definitions for arson, aggravated arson, or reckless burning, you can be charged with a crime called “causing a catastrophe” under Utah Code § 76-6-105.
If you caused the catastrophe recklessly, this crime is a misdemeanor; but if you acted intentionally, causing a catastrophe is a felony. Both can lead to serious penalties, but the consequences of a felony conviction are harsher and have greater repercussions for your future.
Finally, abandoning a fire is another related crime under Utah Code § 76-6-104.5. You can be charged with this offense, which is a misdemeanor, if you abandon a fire without extinguishing it (unless the circumstances amount to arson, aggravated arson, reckless burning, or causing a catastrophe).
Salt Lake City Arson Defense Attorney Handling Felony and Misdemeanor Cases
Arson and reckless burning are serious criminal charges. If you are convicted of either in Utah, you can be incarcerated, heavily fined, and lose many of your cherished rights. You will also receive a criminal record, which can be a huge obstacle when you are looking for employment, loans, housing, or other opportunities in life.
If you or a family member is under investigation for suspected arson, aggravated arson, or reckless burning in connection with a fire, you need to take immediate action to see that your Constitutional rights are protected. For a free, completely confidential legal consultation, call the law offices of Overson Law right away at (801) 758-2287.