Colorado’s Arson Laws

burning house against dark sky

The crime of arson in Colorado

You commit the crime of arson when you intentionally, knowingly or recklessly set fire to, burn, or use an explosive to:

  • Damage or destroy your own property, or
  • Damage or destroy the property of another without that person's consent.

In Colorado, arson can be in the first, second, third or fourth degree depending on:

  • The type of property involved,
  • Whose property it was,
  • Whether you set the fire intentionally, knowingly or recklessly, and
  • The value of any property damaged.

Is arson a felony in Colorado?

 Arson is a felony in Colorado if:

  • The property you burn or try to burn is a building or occupied structure, or
  • You burn property with the intent to defraud someone, or
  • You commit the arson intentionally or knowingly (as opposed to recklessly).

However, arson is a misdemeanor in Colorado when:

  • You burn property other than a building or occupied structure without fraudulent intent, and
  • The damage causes less than $100 worth of damage, and
  • No one is endangered by the fire.

Colorado arson penalties

Punishment for Colorado arson varies depending on the degree and the type and value of the property.

On the high end, felony arson of a building or occupied structure involving explosives can land you in prison for up to 32 years.

Misdemeanor arson, on the other hand, is punishable at most by:

  • Up to one year in jail, and/or
  • A fine of up to $1,000.

Defending Colorado arson charges

Because Colorado's arson laws are so varied, the best defense to Colorado arson charges depends on the crime you are charged with and the circumstances of your case. However, defenses we commonly see include:

  • The fire was an accident,
  • The fire was not caused by arson,
  • You are the victim of mistaken identification,
  • You didn't have the intent required for the crime you are charged with,
  • The fire was an agricultural controlled burn and no one was injured, or
  • There was police misconduct during your arrest or the investigation.

To help you better understand Colorado arson laws, our Colorado criminal defense lawyers discuss the following, below:

Hand holding flaming cigarette lighter against dark background

1. What is arson?

Arson is the crime of intentionally, knowingly or recklessly damaging or destroying property by fire, burning, or explosives.

In Colorado, there are four statutes dealing with the crime of arson:

  • First degree arson — Colorado 18-4-102 C.R.S.;
  • Second degree arson – Colorado 18-4-103 C.R.S.;
  • Third degree arson – Colorado 18-4-104 C.R.S.; and
  • Fourth degree arson – Colorado 18-4-105 C.R.S.

Before we discuss what goes into each of these degrees of arson, let's take a look at the legal definitions of some key words and phrases. 

1.1. The legal definition of “building” and “occupied structure”

Section 18-4-101 of the Colorado Revised Statutes (C.R.S.) defines “building and “occupied structure” as follows:

As used in this article, unless the context otherwise requires:

(1) “Building” means a structure which has the capacity to contain, and is designed for the shelter of, man, animals, or property, and includes a ship, trailer, sleeping car, airplane, or other vehicle or place adapted for overnight accommodations of persons or animals, or for carrying on of business therein, whether or not a person or animal is actually present.

(2) “Occupied structure” means any area, place, facility, or enclosure which, for particular purposes, may be used by persons or animals upon occasion, whether or not included within the definition of “building” in subsection (1) of this section, and which is in fact occupied by a person or animal, and known by the defendant to be thus occupied at the time he acts in violation of one or more of sections 18-4-102 to18-4-105.

1.2. When does property belong to "another"?

18-4-101 C.R.S. also tells us when property belongs to someone else for purposes of Colorado's arson statutes:

Property is that of “another” if anyone other than the defendant has a possessory or proprietary interest therein.1 If a building is divided into units for separate occupancy, any unit not occupied by the defendant is a “building of another”.2

Examples of property of “another” include (without limitation):

  • A building in which a prior owner retains a security interest;3
  • A home with a mortgage;
  • A motor home in which a bank or credit union holds a security interest;4
  • The television set you bought for yourself and your spouse;5
  • A vacant lot;
  • The mailbox at a currently unoccupied house;
  • Artwork a friend loaned to you; or
  • Your spouse's pornography collection.

1.3. The difference between "intentionally," "knowingly," and "recklessly"

You act intentionally when your conscious objective is to cause the specific result proscribed by the statute defining the offense. It is immaterial to the issue of specific intent whether or not the result actually occurred.6 Thus if you intentionally try to burn down a building, you are guilty of first degree arson even if the building doesn't burn down.

You commit arson “knowingly” when you are aware that your conduct is in the nature of arson, or that the result of your conduct is practically certain to cause a result prohibited by the statute.7

You act recklessly when you consciously disregard a substantial and unjustifiable risk that a result will occur or that a circumstance exists.8

burning dynamite fuse against dark background

2. Colorado's degrees of arson

2.1. First degree arson — Colorado 18-4-102 C.R.S.

Section 18-4-102 (1) of the Colorado Revised Statutes (C.R.S.) provides:

A person who knowingly sets fire to, burns, causes to be burned, or by the use of any explosive damages or destroys, or causes to be damaged or destroyed, any building or occupied structure of another without his consent commits first degree arson.

2.2. Second degree arson – Colorado 18-4-103 C.R.S.

18-4-103 (1) C.R.S. provides:

A person who knowingly sets fire to, burns, causes to be burned, or by the use of any explosive damages or destroys, or causes to be damaged or destroyed, any property of another without his consent, other than a building or occupied structure, commits second degree arson.

So the difference between Colorado second and first degree arson is that first degree arson applies to buildings and occupied structures and second degree arson applies to all other property knowingly damaged by fire or explosives without the owner's consent.

2.3. Third degree arson – Colorado 18-4-104 C.R.S.

18-4-104 (1) C.R.S. provides:

A person who, by means of fire or explosives, intentionally damages any property with intent to defraud commits third degree arson.

  • Example:

Zelda doesn't have enough money to pay her bills, so she decides to sell a painting she owns that she paid $5,000 for. However, when she goes to sell it, the highest offer she gets is $700. She decides instead to set a fire in her living room so that the painting will catch on fire and she can claim the insurance proceeds.

Because Zelda's intention was to damage the property and defraud her insurance company into paying for it, she has committed third degree arson.

2.4. Fourth degree arson – Colorado 18-4-105 C.R.S.

18-4-105 (1) C.R.S. provides:

A person who knowingly or recklessly starts or maintains a fire or causes an explosion, on his own property or that of another, and by so doing places another in danger of death or serious bodily injury or places any building or occupied structure of another in danger of damage commits fourth degree arson.

“Serious bodily injury” means bodily injury which, either at the time of the actual injury or at a later time, involves a substantial risk of death, a substantial risk of serious permanent disfigurement, a substantial risk of protracted loss or impairment of the function of any part or organ of the body, or breaks, fractures, or burns of the second or third degree.9

Note that the “knowingly” requirement of Colorado's fourth degree arson law applies to the act of starting or maintaining a fire or explosion and not to the statute's endangerment provision. If you knowingly or recklessly start a fire and anyone – even a firefighter – is endangered without your knowledge, you are guilty of fourth degree arson.10 

Notwithstanding the foregoing, it is NOT arson if:

  • You start and maintain a fire as a controlled agricultural burn in a reasonably cautious manner; and
  • No one is injured as a result of the fire.

A “controlled agricultural burn” is a technique used in farming to clear the land of any existing crop residue, kill weeds and weed seeds, or reduce fuel buildup and decrease the likelihood of a future fire.

professional conducting a controlled burn of a field
A trained professional conducting a controlled burn on behalf of the National Park Service.

3. Consequences of a Colorado arson conviction

3.1. First degree arson penalties

First degree arson is a Colorado class 3 felony. Standard punishment for first degree arson can include:

  • 4-12 years in prison (with 5-years mandatory parole), and/or 
  • A fine of $3,000-$750,000.

However, if you are convicted of committing first degree arson by the use of any explosive, first degree arson is considered a Colorado “crime of violence.” In such a case a prison sentence is mandatory and shall be for 10-32 years.

3.2. Second degree arson penalties

Second degree arson can be either a felony or a misdemeanor in Colorado, depending on the value of the property damaged.

If the damage is $100 or more, second degree arson is a Colorado class 4 felony. Consequences of a felony conviction for second degree arson can include:

  • 2-6 years in prison (with 3 years mandatory parole), and/or
  • A fine of $2,000-$500,000.

If the damage is less than $100, however, second degree arson is a Colorado class 2 misdemeanor. As a misdemeanor, punishment for second degree arson can include:

  • 3-12 months in jail, and/or
  • A fine of $250-$1,000.

The determination of a property's value is one for the jury, to be made based on evidence presented at trial.

3.3. Third degree arson penalties

Third degree arson is a Colorado class 4 felony. Penalties for third degree arson can include:

  • 2-6 years in prison (with 3 years mandatory parole), and/or
  • A fine of $2,000-$500,000.

3.4. Fourth degree arson penalties

If a person is endangered by your reckless conduct, fourth degree arson is a Colorado class 4 felony. As a class 4 felony, arson can be punished by:

  • 2-6 years in prison (with 3 years mandatory parole), and/or
  • A fine of $2,000-$500,000.

If only property is endangered, fourth degree arson is a misdemeanor.

If the property is worth $100 or more, fourth degree arson is a Colorado class 2 misdemeanor. Consequences of class 2 misdemeanor arson can include:

  • 3-12 months in jail, and/or
  • A fine of $250-$1,000.

If the property is worth less than $100 (and no one is endangered), fourth degree arson is a Colorado class 3 misdemeanor. Consequences of arson as a class 3 misdemeanor can include:

  • Up to 6 months in jail, and/or
  • A fine of $50-$750.

4. The best defenses to Colorado arson charges

Because there are so many variations in Colorado's laws on arson, the best defenses to charges of arson in Colorado depend on the specific facts of your case.

Complete or partial defenses to arson often include, however:

  • The fire or explosion was accidental,
  • The fire was not caused by arson,
  • You were the victim of mistaken identification,
  • You set the fire on your own property (partial defense),
  • The owner of the property consented to your burning it,
  • The fire damaged neither a building nor an occupied structure (defense to first degree arson),
  • You didn't intend to defraud anyone (defense to third degree arson),
  • The property was worth less than $100 (partial defense to second or fourth degree arson),
  • No one was endangered (possible defense to fourth degree arson), or
  • There was police misconduct during your arrest or the investigation.

Call us for help…

call center receptionist

If you or someone you know has been accused of arson in Colorado, our Colorado criminal defense attorneys are here to help.

We know that even when a fire is caused accidentally, there is often a great deal of pressure for the police and prosecutor to look for arson as a cause.

That's why our compassionate Colorado criminal lawyers defend arson cases proactively and vigorously. We work with the best Colorado arson experts to uncover evidence showing that you didn't start the fire – or that if you did, it was an accident. If there are weaknesses in the prosecution's case, we'll find them – whether it's iffy eyewitness accounts or a timeline that just doesn't add up.

Fires are a tragedy, but your defense doesn't have to be. Contact us today and find out why we are considered some of the best arson defense lawyers in Colorado.

Your initial consultation is absolutely free and completely confidential. Simply fill out the form on this page and an experienced Colorado defense lawyer will get back to you quickly to discuss your case and begin planning a defensive strategy.

Or call us at our conveniently located Denver home office:

Colorado Legal Defense Group
1400 16th Street
16 Market Square
Denver CO 80202
720-955-6112


Legal references:

  1. 18-4-101 (3) C.R.S.
  2. 18-4-101 (4) C.R.S.
  3. People v. Espinoza, 989 P.2d 178 (Colo. App. 1989).
  4. People ex rel. VanMeveren v. District Court In and For Larimer County, 1980, 619 P.2d 494.
  5. See, e.g., People v. Sullivan, App.2002, 53 P.3d 1181, habeas corpus denied 2009, appeal dismissed 365 Fed.Appx. 84 (wife had proprietary interest in her clothing, even though it was purchased out of marital funds).
  6. 18-1-501 (5) C.R.S.
  7. 18-1-501 (6) C.R.S.
  8. 18-1-501 (8) C.R.S.
  9. 18-1-901 (p) C.R.S.
  10. People v. Johnson, 757 P.2d 1098 (Colo. App. 1988); (Copeland v. People, 2 P.3d 1283 (Colo. 2000).

Free attorney consultations...

Our attorneys want to hear your side of the story. Contact us 24/7 to schedule a FREE consultation with a criminal defense lawyer. We may be able to get your charges reduced or even dismissed altogether. And if necessary, we will champion your case all the way to trial.

Office Locations

Shouse Law Group has multiple locations all across California, Nevada, and Colorado. Click Office Locations to find out which office is right for you.

Regain peace of mind...

Our defense attorneys understand that being accused of a crime is one of the most difficult times of your life. Rely on us to zealously and discreetly protect your rights and to fight for the most favorable resolution possible.

To contact us, please select your state:

Call us 24/7 (855) 396-0370