Penal Code 451 PC – California Arson Laws


Arrested for Arson? Advice from a former D.A.

More info at Arrested for arson per California Penal Code 451 pc? A former D.A. — now criminal defense lawyer — discusses the law, penalties, sentencing and best legal defense strategies.

Penal Code 451 PC is the California statute that defines the crime of arson. This section makes it a felony for a person willfully and maliciously to set fire to or burn any structure, forest land, or property. A conviction carries a sentence of up to 9 years in state prison.

Note that this code section is one of two California arson laws. The other is Penal Code 452 PC, “reckless burning.”

PC 451 states that “a person is guilty of arson when he or she willfully and maliciously sets fire to or burns or causes to be burned or who aids, counsels, or procures the burning of, any structure, forest land, or property.”


  • setting fire to someone else's car as an act of revenge.
  • causing a forest fire by intentionally throwing a lit cigarette into dry grass and branches (despite posted signs warning not to do so).
  • setting fire to a restaurant in order to collect insurance money.


A defendant can use a legal defense to challenge an arson charge. A few common defenses are:

  • no willful act,
  • fire not started by arson, and/or
  • no intent to defraud (for arson of personal property).


A violation of this code section is charged as a felony. This is opposed to a misdemeanor or an infraction.

The maximum punishment for the offense is custody in state prison for up to nine years.

Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:

arsonist setting building on fire
Penal Code 451 PC is the California statute that defines the crime of arson.

1. How does California law define the crime of arson?

Penal Code 451 PC is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to set fire to any:

  • structure,
  • forest land, or
  • property.1

A prosecutor must prove the following to convict a person under this law:

  1. the defendant set fire to or burned, or caused the burning of, a structure, forest land, or property, and
  2. he acted willfully and maliciously.2

To set fire to or burn means to damage or destroy with fire either all or part of something, no matter how small the part.3

The simple charring of wood is sufficient evidence of a “fire or burn.”4

Questions often arise under this statute on the meaning of:

  • willfully and maliciously,
  • structure and forest land, and
  • property.

1.1. Willfully and maliciously

For purposes of this law, someone commits an act willfully when he or she does it willingly or on purpose.5

Someone acts maliciously when he or she intentionally does a wrongful act or when he or she acts with the unlawful intent to:

  • defraud,
  • annoy, or
  • injure someone else.6

Example: Becky is not guilty of arson if, while reaching for a glass of water, her elbow knocks down a candle and it starts a fire in her condo building. Here, the fire began because of an accident and not a willful act. Further, Becky had no intent to defraud, annoy, or injure someone.

Note that an accused can still be convicted of arson, per Penal Code 452, even if he does not act willfully and maliciously. This code section applies to “reckless” burning. It says it is a crime for a person to recklessly set fire to or burn any structure, forest land, or property.

“Recklessly” is a lower standard than willfully and maliciously. A person acts “recklessly” if:

  1. he is aware that his actions could present a substantial and unjustifiable risk of causing a fire,
  2. he ignores that risk, and
  3. doing so is a gross deviation from how a reasonable person would act in the same situation.7

1.2. Structure and forest land

California law states that a structure is any:

  • building,
  • bridge,
  • tunnel,
  • power plant, or
  • commercial or public tent.8

Fire damage to fixtures within a building may fall into the category of a “structure” if the fixtures are an integral part of the building.9

PC 451 says that a forest land means:

  • brush-covered land,
  • cut-over land,
  • forest,
  • grasslands, or
  • woods.10

1.3. Property

Property, under California arson laws, means personal property or land other than forest land.11

This definition includes items like:

  • clothing, and
  • trash.12

Note that arson of property does not include a person burning his own personal property. This is unless:

  • the burning was done with an intent to defraud, or
  • someone was injured in the building.13

Example: Nia is not guilty of arson if she does a controlled burn of an old shed on her property in order to remove it.

However, she may be guilty of the offense if someone gets hurt in the burn or she performed the burn to defraud her insurance company.

house on fire
One defense is that the house was that the fire was not started willfully.

2. Are there defenses to a 451 PC charge?

A defendant can raise a legal defense to try and beat an arson charge.

Three common defenses are:

  1. no willful act,
  2. fire not started by arson, and/or
  3. no intent to defraud.

2.1. No willful act

Recall that an accused can only be guilty under this statute if he acted willfully. This means it is a valid defense for the defendant to show that he did not start a fire on purpose (e.g., maybe he burnt something on accident).

2.2. Fire not started by arson

It is always a defense for a defendant to show that a fire was started by something else other than arson. Some common causes of fires include:

  • harsh weather or lightning,
  • faulty or old wiring,
  • cooking and heating equipment, and
  • smoking.

An accused can try to show his innocence by showing that one of the above caused a fire, and not his own acts.

2.3. No intent to defraud

As to arson of property, recall that a person cannot be guilty of burning his own personal property unless:

  • the burning was done with an intent to defraud, or
  • someone was injured in the building.

One defense, therefore, to arson of personal property is for the accused to show that there was no intent to defraud. A person intends to commit fraud when he tries to deceive or trick another person.

Example: Jerome is not guilty of arson if his own home partially burnt down because of a spark from his fireplace. This is an accident as opposed an intent to defraud.

He could be charged with arson, though, if he intentionally set fire to his home for insurance reasons. Here, there is an intent to defraud the insurer.

3. What are the penalties?

A violation of Penal Code 451 is charged as a felony in California.14

The specific punishment for the offense depends on:

  • the type of property that was burned, and
  • whether or not someone suffered a burn injury.

The potential state prison terms for willful/malicious arson are:

  • 16 months, two years, or three years for malicious arson of personal property,
  • two, four, or six years for malicious arson of a structure or forest land,
  • three, five, or eight years for malicious arson that causes an inhabited structure or inhabited property to burn, and
  • five, seven, or nine years for arson that causes great bodily injury.15

4. Are there immigration consequences?

An arson conviction will have negative immigration consequences.

United States immigration law says that certain kinds of criminal convictions can lead to:

A category of “deportable” or “inadmissible” crimes includes “crimes of moral turpitude.”16

California law states that arson is in fact a crime of moral turpitude.17 This means an arson conviction can lead to an immigrant being deported or labeled as inadmissible.

5. Can a person get a conviction expunged?

A person convicted of this crime is entitled to an expungement provided that he:

  1. successfully completes probation, or
  2. completes a jail term (whichever is relevant).

If a party violates a probation term, he could still possibly get the offense expunged. This, though, would be in the judge's discretion.

Under Penal Code 1203.4, an expungement releases an individual from virtually "all penalties and disabilities" arising out of the conviction.18

6. Does a conviction affect gun rights?

A conviction under 451 PC will have a negative effect on the convicted party's gun rights.

According to California law, convicted felons are prohibited from acquiring or possessing a gun in California.

Since arson is charged as a felony, a conviction of this crime will result in the defendant losing his rights to own and possess a gun.

7. Are there related offenses?

There are three crimes related to arson. These are:

  1. first-degree murder – PC 187
  2. burglary – PC 459, and
  3. trespass – PC 602.

7.1. First-degree murder – PC 187

Per Penal Code 187 PC, first-degree murder may be charged when a killing:

  • is accomplished by means of a destructive device, armor-piercing ammunition, poison, lying in wait, or torture, or
  • is done in a way that is willful, deliberate and premeditated, or
  • invokes the California felony murder rule.

Note that like arson, a conviction of first-degree murder may require a showing of willfulness on the part of the accused.

7.2. Burglary – PC 459

Penal Code 459 PC says that a burglary occurs when a person:

  1. enters any residential or commercial building or room, and
  2. does so with the intent to commit a felony or a theft once inside.

Note that burglary applies to a narrower subject area than arson. PC 459 only applies to residential or commercial buildings (and does not include “structures” and “forest land”).

7.3. Trespass – PC 602

Penal Code 602 PC is California's law that makes it a crime to trespass.

A person commits trespassing when he or she enters, or remains on, someone else's property without permission or a right to do so.

Unlike arson, there is no requirement under this law that the defendant act with any specific willfulness or maliciousness.

For additional help...

california arson attorneys
Call us for help at (855) LAW-FIRM

For additional guidance or to discuss your case with a criminal defense attorney, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

For similar accusations in Nevada, please see our article on “Nevada ‘Arson' Laws (NRS 205.010).”

For similar accusations in Colorado, please see our article on “Colorado's Arson Laws.”

Legal References:

  1. California Penal Code 451 PC.

  2. CALCRIM No. 1515 – Arson. Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (2017 edition).

  3. See same. See also People v. Haggerty (1873) 46 Cal. 354; and, In re Jesse L. (1990) 221 Cal.App.3d 161.

  4. People v. Simpson (1875), 50 Cal. 304.

  5. CALCRIM No. 1515.

  6. See same. See also People v. Labaer (2001) 88 Cal.App.4th 289.

  7. CALCRIM 1532 – Unlawfully causing a fire [Reckless arson/reckless burning]. See also In re Stonewall F. (1989), 208 Cal. App. 3d 1054.

  8. CALCRIM No. 1515.

  9. In re Jesse L. (1990) 221 Cal.App.3d 161; and, People v. Lee (1994) 24 Cal.App.4th 1773.

  10. CALCRIM No. 1515.

  11. See same. See also In re L.T. (2002) 103 Cal.App.4th 262.

  12. CALCRIM No. 1515. See also People v. Reese (1986) 182 Cal.App.3d 737; and, In re L.T. (2002) 103 Cal.App.4th 262.

  13. California Penal Code 451d PC.

  14. See same.

  15. See same.

  16. See INA 237 (a) (2) (A).

  17. People v. Miles (1985) 172 Cal.App.3d 474.

  18. California Penal Code 1203.4 PC.

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