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.

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.