Arson: The Crime And The Law

We in the fire service have long recognized how serious is the problem of arson. Virtually any experienced firefighter or fire investigator can tell tragic stories that graphically illustrate the devastating consequences of intentionally set fires...


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Today, damage caused by explosions, as well as burning, is considered arson in many jurisdictions. We generally think of bombings as terrorist acts, and separate from arson. But fire can be another one of the terrorist's tools. Certainly we who have experienced significant fires know the terror that fire can create. It can be argued that legally there is little difference between the two when they are used for terrorist purposes.

Although the penalties associated with arson vary considerably among jurisdictions, one important change has been the division of arson into more than one degree of severity. This makes the law more adaptable to the nature of the crime. Thus, arson crimes that are considered more serious, such as racially motivated church burnings or terrorist acts, can be dealt with severely.

Finally, the definition of arson has been expanded to include all types of structures, both commercial and private, and not just "the dwelling of another." Without this change, under the old common law, a church burning would not have been considered arson because it was no one's "dwelling."

Arson today is considered a violent crime, much more serious than the property offense it once was. The law will continue to change to meet the needs of our ever-changing culture. And that's the way our legal system ought to work.


Steve Blackistone, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is an attorney and a member of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad in Montgomery County, MD.