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Arson is typically defined as the malicious burning of property. It is important to understand that arson is a legal term, and the definition varies from one country to another or even between different states within a country. The Uniform Crime Report (UCR) of the Federal Bureau of Investigation defines arson as: "any willful or malicious burning or attempt to burn, with or without intent to defraud, a dwelling house, public building, motor vehicle or aircraft, personal property of another, etc." When a fire occurs, fire investigators, crime scene investigators, or forensic scientists are called to the scene to determine the origin and cause of the fire and the potential of arson.

The general definition of arson means that somebody deliberately or intentionally set fire to a property in order to destroy it, with a criminal intent. The person who decides to burn dead leaves in a backyard is normally not charged with arson, as it is his/her own property and there is no criminal intent. Criminal intent can be very broad. It includes gain of profit, fraud, persecution, or causing injury. The crime of arson is a very serious offense, punishable by several years of imprisonment. Also, there are some state's statutes, such as those in Georgia, which extend the crime of arson to fires that are accidentally created during the execution of a felony . These recent statutes were created in order to respond to the accidental fires and explosions that took place in neighborhood drug laboratories, such as methamphetamine labs. With these new statutes, law enforcement agencies and prosecutors can, for example, charge a criminal with arson if a house was burned down due to an accidental fire started during the manufacturing of methamphetamine. In intentional burnings, the charge of arson can extend in some states to the person who ordered the burning and not only to the person who actually performed the act of setting the property on fire.

Individuals who commit arson (arsonists) can be characterized in a variety of ways. About 90% of arsonists are men and about 50% are younger than 18 years old. Juvenile fire setters are a great concern, and several programs have been created in the United States to identify these juveniles and address their problem behaviors. There are different motives for committing arson and they are usually classified into categories, such as profit, spite, excitement, crime concealment, and vandalism.

Arson for profit includes all arsons committed with the expectation of obtaining a gain from the perpetrator (arsonist). It is important to note that the perpetrator does not necessarily need to obtain gain, but to show the intent that gain was going to be obtained. The gain can be direct or indirect. An example of direct gain would be the collection of the insurance money for the replacement of a burned house. Indirect gain would be an increase of business by eliminating (burning) the competitor who was doing business across the street. One of the most important arsons for profit committed in the United States is insurance fraud. This kind of criminal act is relatively widely spread in the United States. Some arsonists found it easier to burn their homes rather than to invest money to repair them. Also, when a vehicle arrives at the end of a lease and the mileage is excessive, arsonists have burned the car, simulating an accidental fire, rather than paying for the extra mileage.

Arson for spite is also known as arson for revenge. This type of arsonist wants to take revenge against a person, a group of persons, an organization or institution, or against society, in general. Some activist organizations for peace, or groups who fight violence against animals, for example, have regularly committed arson and destroyed laboratories or headquarters of research facilities for the sake of their cause.

Arson for excitement is committed by people who are bored, in need of attention, or sexually stimulated by the crime of arson. These criminals are considered dangerous, as they do not have a particular target, and will burn any place or thing that would fulfill their need for excitement, attention, or get them the recognition they think they deserve. Because of the random nature of excitement motivated arsons, when one arsonist commits several burning acts, they are often difficult to profile.

Arson for crime concealment is performed when criminals try to hide another crime. For example, after murdering an individual, the house is set on fire, destroying the body and much of the evidence of the murder activities. In some instances, a vehicle that was stolen for a joy ride or to commit another crime, such as a robbery, is set on fire in order to destroy evidence that would link the authors to the theft. Criminals are aware that fire is a powerful weapon to achieve destruction of evidence. Fortunately, there are many forensic techniques that have been developed throughout the years to retrieve different evidence, such as blood patterns or fingerprints, after a fire.

Arson for vandalism is typically performed by young criminals or juvenile fire setters for no apparent reason. Schools or educational facilities are often the target of such crimes.

In the United States, the crime of arson is typically first investigated by the fire department. The fire department is the first agency to be on scene to proceed with extinguishing the fire. The fire chief usually determines if the fire occurred among suspicious circumstances and if arson investigator needs to be called. If the fire is considered as arson, either the fire department pursues the investigation, or other law enforcement agencies are contacted for assistance. Most states have state fire marshal offices that specialize in arson investigation. Also, at the federal level, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms (ATF ), is also involved in arson investigation and has the greatest number of arson investigators at the federal level. The ATF also has several National Response Teams (NRT), which can travel to assist other law enforcement agencies. While most fires are in the jurisdiction of local authorities, there is one exception to this rule: church fires. In 1996, in order to respond to an increase in the number of deliberate church fires, President Bill Clinton formed the National Church Arson Task Force (NCATF). The goal of the NCATF was to allocate federal resources to the investigation of church fires around the country. The ATF and the FBI are the main agencies that investigate these fires. The NCATF coordinated investigations of 945 church arsons or bombings that occurred between January 1, 1995, and August 15, 2000, which led to the arrest of 431 suspects in connection with 342 incidents. This represents a clearance rate of about 36%, more than twice than the national average.

Arson is a serious problem in many countries and more particularly in the United States. This is reflected in local and national statistics. In 2003, there were 37,500 structure fires reported as arson in the U.S. These fires resulted in 305 deaths and 692 million dollars in damage. They represented approximately 3% of all structure fires that occurred in 2003 in the United States. In addition, there were about 30,500 vehicle fires reported as arson that resulted in a dollar loss of approximately 132 million dollars. Fortunately, these figures are in regression for the last ten years as there were 90,500 structure fires in the United States for the year 1995, resulting in 1.6 billion dollars of direct loss. The UCR reports approximately the same number of offenses for 2003, but adds the proportion of cleared offenses, which is 16.7%. It also specifies that arson occurs at the rate of 30.4 offenses per 100,000 inhabitants.

There are several organizations that provide programs and information or training to fight against the crime of arson. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) provides training documents and statistics for fire and arson investigators. The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) provides statistics and training. The Insurance Committee for Arson Control (ICAC) provides publications and seminars to increase public awareness of the arson problem and help insurance companies fight the problem of arson.

see also Accelerant; Fire debris; Profiling.


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Atcommon law, the malicious burning or exploding of the dwelling house of another, or the burning of a building within the curtilage, the immediate surrounding space, of the dwelling of another.

Modern legislation has extended the definition of arson to include the burning or exploding of commercial and public buildings—such as restaurants and schools—and structures—such as bridges. In many states, the act of burning any insured dwelling, regardless of whether it belongs to another, constitutes arson if it is done with an intent to defraud the insurer. Finally, the common-law rule that the property burned must belong to another person has been completely eliminated by statute in some states.


The main elements necessary to prove arson are evidence of a burning and evidence that a criminal act caused the fire. The accused must intend to burn a building or other structure. Absent a statutory description of the conduct required for arson, the conduct must be malicious, and not accidental. Malice, however, does not mean ill will. Intentional or outrageously reckless conduct is sufficient to constitute malice. Motive, on the other hand, is not an essential element of arson.

Unless a statute extends the crime to other property, only a house used as a residence, or buildings immediately surrounding it, can be the subject of arson. If a house is vacated, is closed up, or becomes unfit for human habitation, its burning will not constitute arson. A temporary absence from a dwelling will not negate its character as a residence.

Generally, the actual presence of a person within a dwelling at the moment it is burned is not necessary. It may, however, be required for a particular degree of the crime. The fact, and not the knowledge, of human occupancy is what is essential. If a dwelling is burned under the impression that it is uninhabited when people actually live in it, the crime is committed.

Absent a statute to the contrary, a person is innocent of arson if that individual burns his or her own property while living there. The common exception to this rule is the burning of one's own property with an intent to defraud or prejudice the property insurer. In addition, under statutes that punish the burning of a dwelling house without expressly requiring it to be the property of another, a person who burns his or her own property might be guilty of arson. An owner, for purposes of arson, is the person who possesses the house and has the care, control, and management of it. In those states that have maintained the common-law rule that the property burned must belong to another person, an owner who burns his or her house while it is in the possession of a lawful tenant is guilty of arson.


In many states arson is divided into degrees, depending sometimes on the value of the property but more commonly on its use and whether the crime was committed in the day or night. A typical statute might make the burning of an inhabited dwelling house at night first-degree arson, the burning of a building close enough to a dwelling so as to endanger it second-degree arson, and the burning of any structure with an intent to defraud an insurer thereof, third-degree arson. Many statutes vary the degree of the crime according to the criminal intent of the accused.


Arson is a serious crime that was punishable by death under the common law. Presently, it is classified as a felony under most statutes, punishable by either imprisonment or death. Many jurisdictions impose prison sentences commensurate with the seriousness of the criminal intent of the accused. A finding, therefore, that the offense was committed intentionally will result in a longer prison sentence than a finding that it was done recklessly. When a human life is endangered, the penalty is most severe.


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ar·son / ˈärsən/ • n. the criminal act of deliberately setting fire to property.DERIVATIVES: ar·son·ist / -nist/ n.


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arson XVII. OF. :- med L. arsiō, -ōn-, f. ars-, pp. stem of ardēre burn.

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