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PG IV(C) What is the Intent Requirement for Arson?
“A person is guilty of arson when he or she wilfully and maliciously sets fire to or burns or causes to be burned or who aids, counsels, or procures the burning of, any structure, forest land, or property. (PC 451.) Felony arson is divided into the following four categories, each of which carries different prison term limits: 1) arson that causes great bodily injury (PC 451(a)); 2) arson that causes an inhabited structure or inhabited property to burn (PC 451(b)); 3) arson of a structure or forest land (PC 451(c)); 4) arson of property (PC 451(d)). On the other hand, if the fire is “recklessly” set, the crime is misdemeanor arson (PC 452).
A common sense interpretation of these statutes would require an intent to burn a structure, forest land, or property for felony arson. For example, in People v. Tanner (79) 95 CA3d 948, 956 [157 CR 465] the court held that it was error to instruct the jury that the intent with which the act is committed is immaterial to guilt. “The effect of the instruction was to remove from the jury the question of the existence of a critical element of the offense of arson — the general intent to set fire to a building.” (Ibid; see also In re Stonewall F. (89) 208 CA3d 1054, 1062-1068 [256 CR 578] [reckless burning of a structure is misdemeanor arson (PC 452) not felony arson (PC 451)]; People v. Schwartz (92) 2 CA4th 1319, 1324-25 [3 CR2d 816] [burning of a car within a garage with no intent to burn the structure does not give rise to arson liability for burning an inhabited structure even though the structure did burn].)
The intent necessary for conviction of arson under PC 451 was recently addressed in People v. Lopez (93) 13 CA4th 1840 [17 CR2d 317]. Lopez relied upon People v. Glover (91) 233 CA3d 1476, 1844-46 [285 CR 362] to conclude that to violate PC 451(b), the defendant need only have the general intent to start a fire and need not have any intent to burn a structure. (Id. at 1845) However, in light of the discussion above, Lopez and Glover should not be read to require only a general intent to start a fire which burned a structure. Regardless of whether it is characterized as general or specific intent, PC 451 unquestionably requires that the defendant intended to burn the structure, property or forest land which was burned. CJ 14.80 fails to convey this requirement to the jury and should be modified to do so.