News reports in Philadelphia covered an apparent arson in Pine Hill, New Jersey: a playground had caught fire, and the flames spread to a nearby concession stand. While police have not yet ruled it arson and the incident happened on the wrong side of the river, the incident does shed light on Pennsylvania's arson laws.
Playground Catches Fire in Apparent Arson
Fire trucks responded to the Charles Bowen Recreational Complex early in the morning of June 22, 2019, to find the playground there in flames. Before they could contain the fire, it had spread to the nearby concession stand and caused some damage there, as well.
In all, it is estimated that the fire cost around $75,000 in damage.
Police suspect that the fire was intentionally set.
Pennsylvania's Arson Laws
Arson is the act of intentionally creating a fire or an explosion.
However, Pennsylvania recognizes three different levels of arson.
The first and most severe include endangering someone else through reckless or intentional conduct, including by purposely damaging an inhabited building. These offenses are first degree felonies.
The second level of arson involves intentionally damaging an unoccupied building, setting fire to a building in order to collect insurance money, recklessly putting an occupied building in danger, or intentionally damaging any historic building. These offenses are second-degree felonies.
Finally, the third level of arson involves recklessly putting an uninhabited building, structure, car, vehicle, or other personal property worth more than $5,000. These offenses are third-degree felonies.
Penalties for Arson
Depending on the level of arson that gets charged, the penalties range from significant to very severe.
- First-degree felony arson carries up to 20 years in jail and up to $25,000 in fines
- Second-degree felony arson can carry up to 10 years in jail and $25,000 in fines
- Third-degree felony arson can come with up to 7 years in jail and up to $15,000 in fines
The Two Big Factors: Intent and Inhabited Buildings
As you can see, the law in Pennsylvania focuses on whether the fire or explosion was set or created intentionally or merely recklessly, and on whether there was anyone living or even present in the building or structure that was damaged by the flames.
In this case, prosecutors may try to pursue the second-degree felony version of Pennsylvania's arson laws because the fire apparently spread to the concession stand in the park – an “unoccupied building” in the eyes of the law. Prosecutors, however, would have to prove that the spread of the fire to the concession stand was intentional, rather than merely reckless, in order to get a conviction for the second-degree felony.
A skilled criminal defense lawyer would advance evidence that there was no intent for the fire to spread to the concession stand, drastically reducing the penalties that would come with a conviction.