Intentionally setting fire to property in Nevada may result in arson charges against the person who set the fire or organized it. A person charged with arson may have legal and factual defenses available to assert their innocence, contest the prosecution’s case, or seek lesser penalties in the event of a conviction.
Understanding Arson Charges
Nevada law defines the crime of arson as willfully and maliciously setting fire to a building/structure, land, or personal property, causing the burning of such property, or aiding in the setting of a fire. There are four degrees of severity for arson charges in Nevada, depending on the circumstances of the offense:
- First-degree arson: Defined as willfully and maliciously setting fire to a residence, whether occupied or vacant, or personal property (such as a vehicle) occupied by one or more persons. Penalties for a conviction include two to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000.
- Second-degree arson: Defined as willfully and maliciously setting fire to an abandoned building or structure, with a conviction carrying a penalty of one to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
- Third-degree arson: Defined as willfully and maliciously setting fire to unoccupied personal property worth $25 or more, unoccupied personal property of the defendant in which another party has a legal interest, or any timber/shrubbery/crops/grass/vegetation not belonging to the defendant. Conviction carries a penalty of one to four years in prison and a potential fine of up to $5,000.
- Fourth-degree arson: Nevada charges attempted arson (including making preparations to commit arson) as fourth-degree arson, imposing a penalty for conviction of one to four years in prison and a possible fine of up to $5,000.
Nevada also has a specific arson statute covering a fire or attempted fire intended to defraud an insurance company, which carries a penalty of one to six years in prison, a potential fine of up to $5,000, and likely an obligation to pay restitution to the insurance company or harmed property owner.
Common Legal Defenses Against Arson Charges
Depending on the facts of the case, a person facing arson charges may have various defenses they can raise to fight a conviction. Common factual and legal defenses used in arson cases include:
- Accident: A defendant might fight an arson charge by claiming that they started the fire by accident and did not intend to burn the property, such as when a candle, cooking fire, or campfire goes out of control.
- Lack of intent: A person charged with attempted arson/fourth-degree arson for allegedly collecting materials in preparation to set a fire may argue that they never intended to start a fire prohibited under the arson statutes.
- Natural causes: A defendant might beat an arson charge by showing that the fire occurred due to natural causes, such as faulty electrical wiring, a gas leak, or a lightning strike.
- The property belongs solely to the defendant: Nevada’s arson laws do not prohibit a person from burning solely-owned personal property, so a defendant might fight an arson charge by proving they had sole ownership of the personal property at issue and did not set the fire with the intent to commit insurance fraud.
- Mistaken identity/alibi: A defendant may argue that a witness to the arson has mistakenly identified the defendant as the perpetrator, such as by pointing out that the witness may not have gotten a good look at the perpetrator or had vision problems that may have prevented them from getting a good look. In conjunction with a mistaken identity defense, a defendant may provide an alibi or evidence proving they were somewhere else when the fire occurred.
Challenging the Prosecution’s Evidence
A defense strategy against arson charges may also focus on challenging the prosecution’s evidence. Challenges to the state’s case may include moving to exclude evidence as unlawfully obtained by investigators, such as when police search property without a warrant or probable cause or obtain incriminating statements from a suspect by violating their right to silence and legal counsel. Defense counsel may also obtain expert witnesses who can testify, based on scientific principles, as to the actual cause of the fire.
Mitigating Factors and Plea Bargaining
When the prosecution has overwhelming evidence of a defendant’s guilt, the defendant can avoid the harshest consequences of a conviction by pursuing a plea bargain or preparing an effective mitigation strategy for the sentencing hearing. In many cases, prosecutors will agree to recommend sentences toward the lower end of the sentencing range when defendants agree to plead guilty since a guilty plea saves the government the time and money of a trial. Prosecutors may also offer leniency to defendants who agree to cooperate and testify against co-defendants or in other criminal cases.
At sentencing following a conviction for arson, a defendant can argue for a lower sentence by presenting mitigating factors to the trial court. Some of the factors that trial courts consider as weighing in favor of a lower sentence for a defendant include:
- Lack of a prior criminal history
- Mental health and substance abuse issues
- Troubled childhood
- History of stable employment and the need to provide for family members
- Acceptance of responsibility and demonstrated remorse
Legal Consequences and Long-Term Impacts
An arson conviction will result in severe financial and personal penalties, including years-long prison sentences, possible fines costing thousands of dollars, and restitution obligations requiring a convicted defendant to reimburse a property owner for their damaged or destroyed property. However, convictions can have consequences long after an offender’s sentence. A criminal record containing an arson conviction can make obtaining employment, housing, financial services, or other opportunities challenging for offenders, as many landlords, employers, and financial institutions conduct background checks on applicants and see a criminal record as a stigma.
Navigating the Legal System
A defendant facing arson charges can give themselves the best chance of a favorable resolution to their case by obtaining legal counsel who can help them navigate the criminal justice system. When a person gets arrested for arson, an attorney can guide them through the initial booking process, arraignment, pre-trial court hearings, plea negotiations, and ultimately, a trial if the defendant chooses to fight their charges.
Contact a Las Vegas Criminal Defense Attorney for Help Facing Your Charges
After getting arrested and charged with arson in Nevada, you need experienced legal advocacy to protect your reputation, freedom, and future. Contact De Castroverde Law Group Criminal & Immigration today for a confidential consultation to discuss your options for facing your charges with a knowledgeable, dedicated arson defense attorney.