What is Arson? - Definition & Law

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  • 0:04 Definition of Arson
  • 1:07 Arson Degrees &…
  • 2:23 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Amy Bonn

Amy has taught college and law school writing courses and has a master's degree in English and a law degree.

What constitutes arson, and how has the definition of this crime changed over time? This lesson explains the elements of arson as well as why there are various degrees of the crime.

Definition of Arson

Arson was originally defined as the willful and malicious burning of the dwelling place of another. When it comes to understanding arson, it's useful to recognize that this crime is one that, in many jurisdictions, is defined more specifically than it used to be. Further, the severity of punishment for an arsonist is based on the danger to people that the particular act of arson may have posed.

The elements of arson were originally determined by the common law, or rules that were derived from English custom and court cases. These common law requirements dictated that the crime of arson would be committed by the perpetrator burning the dwelling place of another person, and the act had to be willful and malicious. Over the years, state legislatures have enacted specific requirements that have both broadened the definition of arson and added specifics. For example, many state statutes no longer require that the perpetrator burn another person's dwelling for the crime to constitute arson. Arson can occur with the burning of other types of buildings and areas of land.

Arson Degrees and Classifications

Many crimes are classified in terms of degrees, with more severe punishments reserved for those who commit more egregious crimes. Under many state statutes, arsonists would be more severely punished for burning homes that were occupied than they would be for burning other buildings that are either not occupied or likely to be occupied. The former would constitute first degree arson in some jurisdictions, while the latter might constitute second degree arson. If a perpetrator could have reasonably expected people to be within the building at the time of the arson, regardless of whether or not people were actually present, that could be sufficient to merit a conviction of a higher degree of arson under some state statutes.

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