Expunging an Arson or "Dangerous Burning" Charge in Pennsylvania
Arson can be a serious and deadly crime. As a result, Pennsylvania treats these crimes seriously. However, not all fires are alike. Pennsylvania recognizes this and carved out a "dangerous burning" charge within the arson statute for those fires that don't harm any property or people. However, even minor crimes can have a long-term effect on your education, profession, and even your ability to rent or own a home.
While a criminal record is never a good thing, you do have a chance to remove minor offenses from your record in Pennsylvania through expungement. An expungement is a court order directing the destruction or removal of administrative and criminal records related to an arrest, charge, or conviction. If you don't qualify to have your records expunged, you may qualify to have them sealed or removed from public access.
What Can I Expunge in Pennsylvania?
In Pennsylvania, you may be able to expunge criminal records for:
- A conviction that was a summary offense and you've been free from arrest or prosecution for five years, and
- A crime for which you were charged but never convicted, including not guilty verdicts, dropped and dismissed charges, and nolle prosse dispositions.
A summary offense is a minor crime, less serious than a misdemeanor or felony. In Pennsylvania, the maximum penalty for a summary offense is 90 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,500. However, typically a summary offense conviction will result in just a fine.
You cannot expunge a misdemeanor or felony conviction in Pennsylvania, but you may be able to have convictions sealed in some cases.
Arson or "Dangerous Burning" in Pennsylvania
You may be eligible to have a "dangerous burning" conviction expunged in Pennsylvania if it was a summary offense. It's important to note that "dangerous burning" is part of the criminal code that deals with arson. Arson is a serious crime and can be a first-degree felony if someone intentionally burns property intending to destroy it or recklessly puts someone else's life in danger. However, the arson statute defines "dangerous burning" as a minor arson violation:
A person commits a summary offense if he intentionally or recklessly starts a fire to endanger any person or property of another whether or not any damage to person or property actually occurs.
18 Pa. Code § 3301(d.1) (2014).
More serious arson crimes include:
- Arson Endangering Persons: Arson that intentionally destroys property and recklessly endangers someone's life is a first-degree felony. If someone dies as a result of the fire or explosion, the charge is second-degree murder.
- Aggravated Arson: Arson that intentionally starts a fire that either recklessly endangers someone's life or is directed at an occupied building is a first-degree felony. If someone dies as a result of the fire or explosion, the charge is second-degree murder.
- Arson of a Historic Resource: If someone intentionally starts a fire or causes an explosion on their property or someone else's property with the intent to destroy or damage a historic resource, it is a second-degree felony.
- Arson Endangering Property: It is a second-degree felony if someone: (1) starts a fire or causes an explosion with the intent of destroying or damaging an unoccupied structure, (2) recklessly puts an unoccupied structure in danger of damage or destruction, or (3) intends to destroy or damage the property to collect insurance.
- Reckless Burning or Exploding: It is a third-degree felony if someone starts a fire or causes an explosion that recklessly puts an unoccupied structure in danger of damage or destruction or puts any personal property over $5,000 in value in danger of damage or destruction.
Can I Expunge an Arson or Dangerous Burning Charge?
You may be able to expunge an arson charge if:
- Your conviction was a summary offense for dangerous burning, and you've been free from arrest or prosecution for the last five years,
- The police charged you with arson, but you weren't convicted, including not guilty verdicts, dropped or dismissed charges, and nolle prosse dispositions,
- You completed an Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) or similar diversionary program where you finished probation without an arson conviction.
You cannot expunge a misdemeanor or felony arson conviction unless:
- You are at least 70 years old, and ten years have passed since the criminal proceedings, or
- The subject of the criminal record has been dead for at least three years.
You may also be able to expunge a dangerous burning charge if the conviction happened while you were a minor and it was a summary offense.
If you don't meet one of the criteria above, you probably don't qualify to have your records expunged. However, you may be able to have your records sealed or request a pardon from the state.
Sealing an Arson Charge
If you don't qualify to have an arson or dangerous burning charge expunged because it wasn't a summary offense, you may qualify for sealing the records. Once sealed, your records are no longer accessible to the general public or through basic background checks. You also won't have to disclose them to most employers. However, the records will still be accessible to state and federal law enforcement and courts and employers required to do criminal background checks by law. These employers may include police, federal law enforcement agencies, the military, federal and state court systems, and those requiring a security clearance. The records will also still appear on FBI background checks.
In some cases, Pennsylvania will automatically seal records for nonviolent misdemeanor convictions or records with no conviction. Charges eligible for automatic sealing include:
- Criminal arrests if you weren't convicted,
- Charges where the court or jury found you not guilty,
- Nonviolent criminal convictions that are ten years or older, and
- Misdemeanor offenses punishable by less than two years in prison.
Otherwise, you can apply to have your records sealed if it was a nonviolent offense and you've been free from arrests and criminal charges for ten years. A caveat with an arson charge in Pennsylvania is that an arson charge will almost always be a felony charge. For that reason, sealing would only be applicable if a defendant was not convicted of the charge of if the charge was dismissed for example.
Hire a Pennsylvania Attorney Experienced in Expunctions
If you need to expunge or seal an arson charge, you need a skilled Pennsylvania expunction attorney. Attorney Joseph D. Lento is an experienced criminal defense attorney well versed in helping clients expunge criminal records. He can help. Give the Lento Law Firm a call at 888-535-3686.