Pittsburgh Arson Lawyer
Arson historically meant that a fire was intentionally set. That narrow definition has been considerably broadened in modern times, to include fires not intentionally set, and, in many cases, explosions as well as fire. Both fires and explosions have tremendous potential for harm to people and property. In addition to the property set afire, and any people in it, arson endangers the firefighters who respond, neighboring property, and depending on where the fire is, surrounding forest land and wildlife.
Accordingly, law and the community at large take a dim view of it. Most offenses are classified as felonies, any deaths caused probably result in murder charges, and penalties are severe which is why it’s so important to hire an experienced Pittsburgh arson lawyer if you are facing charges.
The various incentives to set fires remain:
- Profit, typically from collecting the insurance on the burned building and/or its contents
- Revenge against the person who owns or occupies the property (popular in family and domestic disputes, feuds of all kinds)
- Psychological derangement (pyromania); some of these individuals also serve as volunteer firefighters who help put out the fires they started
- Juvenile pranks that end up out of control
- Deliberate murder of someone in the building set afire (or a fire set to destroy a body killed by other means)
Pennsylvania Law on Arson
Pennsylvania has several offenses for various forms of arson. The specific offense charged, and the class of the offense, depend on many different factors, including:
- Whether a person is injured or killed in the fire
- Whether killing someone was the purpose of setting the fire
- Whether people were endangered by the fire
- Whether property is damaged in the fire
- Whether the fire was set for profit
- Whether the person charged set the fire or had someone else set it
- Whether the fire was set intentionally or recklessly
Pennsylvania law creates several offenses related to fire that are less severe than arson:
- Reckless burning or exploding
- Dangerous burning
- Not reporting or attempting to control dangerous fires
- Causing or risking catastrophe
- Possession of explosive of incendiary materials or devices
- Attempted Homicide
- Risking a Catastrophe
- Causing a Catastrophe
- Recklessly Endangering Another Person
- Criminal Mischief
Federal Arson Law
While not applicable to that many cases of arson, federal law does prohibit many activities involving “explosive materials.” A second federal law addresses arson on federally controlled property as well as on the seas.
For the most severe arson-related crime in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the charge is first degree murder with a sentence of death or life in prison. The various other forms of arson are generally felonies of some degree with serious jail time, although some are misdemeanors and others, like the offense of “dangerous burning” are summary offenses (lower than misdemeanors).
Many of the laws also contemplate various fines and restitution.
A skilled arson lawyer knows the defense to any given arson charge has to be tailored to both the facts of the case, and the elements that the state has to prove to get a conviction. The defense that has the broadest application is that the defendant simply is not the person who caused the fire.
Another broad defense is that the fire was not intentionally set. That could mean either that:
- The defendant did cause it, but not intentionally (this would likely reduce the crime from intentional arson to reckless burning or the like), or
- The fire was the result of forces other than direct human action (lightning, gas line leaks, etc)
If the defendant suffers from pyromania, the condition may well affect his criminal responsibility. This is a very complicated arson defense that calls for both expert psychiatric evidence and, usually, education of the court and jury. Many people find it very hard to understand the difference among :
- Setting a fire, which simply describes an act which may or may not be criminal (burning leaves involves setting a fire)
- Arson, which is setting a fire in any of the ways, and for the reasons, that the law deems a crime
- Pyromania, which is the psychiatric diagnosis for someone who suffers an irresistible impulse to set fires
Investigation of Cause of Fire
Determining what caused the fire is crucial to determining exactly what offense, if any has occurred. That is a very technical issue that is initially performed by fire marshals, investigators, and the police. The initial determination can be challenged by the defense, but it’s an uphill battle calling for independent investigation and testimony by experts in the science of fires.
Getting Help When You’ve Been Accused of Arson
Pennsylvania’s arson and related laws are confusing and overlap enough that the smallest factual difference can change the offense. It takes an experienced Pittsburgh arson defense lawyer to make sense of the charges, determine if the state’s claims support those charges, and present any defenses you have to the charges. For more than two decades, criminal defense attorney Gary Gerson has been successfully defending criminal cases, including arson, in federal and state courts in the Pittsburgh area. Call today.