Arson is willfully and maliciously setting fire to, burning, or exploding a structure or property. All states, including Pennsylvania, have laws against arson, but the crime falls under federal jurisdiction when it involves:
- Property leased, owned, or occupied by the U.S. government
- Property used for interstate or foreign commerce
Penalties for arson can include prison or probation, fines, and restitution. Even being investigated for federal arson can impact your reputation, your job, and other areas of your life.
If you have been arrested for federal arson, consult an attorney right away who can help you understand the charges and advise you accordingly. You'll need a lawyer with experience in federal criminal procedure and defending against federal charges.
How Can You Be Charged with Federal Arson?
The scope of arson as a federal crime is broad. You can be charged if investigators believe you intentionally and maliciously set fire to or burned any property that belongs to or is occupied by the federal government. Examples include:
- Federal buildings
- Structures or vessels
- Machinery, building materials, or supplies
- Military and naval stores
- Munitions of war
- Any structural aids or appliances for navigation or shipping
The federal government can also prosecute arson if the property was “any building, vehicle, or other real or personal property used in interstate or foreign commerce.” This can include:
- National chain stores, hotels, and restaurants
- Delivery vehicles
The law protects “all business property,” along with other property that “might not fit that description.”
Arson is also a federal crime if the building was U.S. government property used as a dwelling. However, if the building was a private residence, the federal government can still get involved if they can establish a “substantial” interstate connection with the property in question. Again, the scope can be broad, and some cases have fallen under federal jurisdiction when the dwelling was attached to an interstate power grid.
Additionally, you may face federal charges if you used incendiary devices, fire, or explosives when committing another felony. An example is using a bomb in a bank robbery. Charges may also result if you possessed explosives and even certain chemicals at the time of the offense.
You can also face charges if you manufacture, distribute, or deal in explosives without a license or if you supplied the explosives used in the crime.
Potential Penalties for Federal Arson
Penalties for federal arson are severe, and you will need an experienced federal defense attorney to help you devise the best defense possible.
Conviction of federal arson carries a minimum five-year prison sentence, with a maximum of 20 years. However, you may receive enhanced penalties in the following situations:
- If you injure anyone during the offense, including a responding public safety officer, the minimum sentence is seven years, with a maximum of 40.
- If the offense results in the death of anyone, including a responding public safety officer, the minimum sentence is 20 years, and you could face life in prison or even the death penalty.
You may receive enhanced penalties for injuring or killing someone even if you didn't intend to harm anyone or didn't know anyone was in the structure at the time.
The government also imposes additional penalties if you used fire or explosives to commit another felony. You can receive an additional ten years on top of your prison sentence for the other felony, and the sentence can go as high as 20 years for prior convictions. You can also receive the same sentences for manufacturing, distributing, or dealing explosives.
Penalties for federal arson can also include fines or having to pay restitution for the damage.
Federal charges for arson are quite serious, but you have a right to defend yourself in federal court, and you should consider all options for presenting an effective defense. Some possible defense strategies may include:
- No willful or malicious intent – If you can show you did not act willfully, or that you did not act maliciously, you may be able to challenge the charges successfully. You may claim you didn't mean to start the fire or that it was an accident. Even if you started a fire intentionally, you might have had no malicious intent to destroy the property. Fires can grow out of control very quickly, and you may not have been able to control the blaze.
- Fire not caused by arson – If you can prove something else started the fire, such as faulty wiring, an appliance malfunction, or an act of nature, you should not be found guilty of arson.
- Falsely accused – Someone may have claimed you started the fire when you didn't. They may have falsely accused you or placed unjust blame on you to remove any appearance of their own culpability. For instance, a person could burn down their own property to commit insurance fraud and blame you, or they could do it as an act of revenge against you. In any event, they do not want to accept responsibility for the crime and are looking for a scapegoat.
- Not federal property – If you can show the property does not fall within the parameters defined by federal law, you should be able to have your federal arson charges dismissed.
Get Help from a Federal Defense Attorney
You may have other defense options for federal arson that will depend on your specific circumstances and the facts about your case. You should consult an experienced federal defense attorney, and you can call the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 or fill out our contact form to request a confidential consultation.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento has many years of experience helping clients facing federal arson charges and has substantial experience trying cases in federal court in Pennsylvania. He can advise you of your rights and fight for you to increase your chances of a favorable outcome.