Welcome to Beerup Law
Ruth Beerup is an experienced St. Charles attorney who has been defending clients' rights for 25 years. A successful defense against an arson case can involve representation before you are charged with a crime, in the investigative stage. It is crucial to have a lawyer who knows how to protect you against unfair police questioning on your side. If you find yourself under investigation or charged with an arson or burning crime, call attorney Ruth Beerup.
Missouri Arson and Burning Crimes Definitions
Arson First Degree
Arson first degree occurs when a person knowingly damages a building or inhabitable structure by fire or explosion when another person is present, and that person is placed in danger of death or serious physical injury. It also occurs when a person starts a fire or explosion that damages a building or inhabitable structure while attempting to make methamphetamine.
Arson first degree is a class B felony punishable by 5 to 15 years in prison unless a person is seriously injured or killed by the fire or explosion. In this case, it is a class A felony with a punishment range of 10 to 30 years, or life, in prison. Arson first degree is considered a “dangerous felony,” and, as such, 85% of the prison sentence must be served.
Arson Second Degree
A person commits the offense of second-degree arson if he or she knowingly damages a building or inhabitable structure by starting a fire or causing an explosion. It is a class D felony punishable by up to 7 years in prison unless a person has suffered severe injury or died as a result of the fire or explosion, in which case it is a class B felony punishable by 5 to 15 years in prison. The statute describes a defense against this charge, usually called a “defense of right,” which is discussed below.
Arson Third Degree
Arson in the third degree is when a person knowingly starts a fire or causes an explosion that recklessly destroys or damages a building or inhabitable structure of another. It is a class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.
For the elements of this offense to be true, the defendant must knowingly start the fire, but the damage must be caused recklessly. In simpler terms, arson third degree occurs when a person intentionally starts a fire that accidentally damages someone else's building. Note that it must be a building, not just property, and it must belong to someone else, not the person who started the fire. Arson third degree is a class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.
Knowingly Burning or Exploding
A person commits the offense of knowingly burning or exploding if they knowingly damage the property of another by starting a fire or causing an explosion. This is intentionally damaging another person's property by starting a fire on purpose. It does not include damage to buildings, which is covered by second-degree arson. It also does not include damage to one's own property. Knowingly burning is a class E felony punishable by up to 4 years in prison or 1 year in jail.
Recklessly Burning or Exploding
A person commits the offense of recklessly burning or exploding if they carelessly start a fire or cause an explosion that damages the property of another. Reckless behavior ignores a substantial and unjustifiable risk to which a reasonable person would pay attention. Once again, this offense does not apply to damage to buildings, only property. It is a class B misdemeanor punishable by up to 6 months in jail.
Negligent Burning or Exploding
A person commits the offense of negligent burning or exploding if they, with criminal negligence, cause damage to property or the woodlands, cropland, grassland, prairie, or marsh of another by starting a fire, causing an explosion, or by letting a fire burning on lands in their possession or control onto the property of another.
Criminal negligence occurs when a person fails to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that a reasonable person would have been aware of. The line between reckless and negligent is a fine one, and opinions will differ as to where the line lies. A good lawyer can make the behavior appear negligent rather than reckless with carefully crafted arguments. Negligent burning is a Class C misdemeanor punishable by up to 15 days in jail.
Building or Inhabitable Structure
Under Missouri law, arson can only be committed when a person starts a fire or causes an explosion that damages a building or inhabitable structure. A building or inhabitable structure is defined as any vehicle, vessel, or structure
- where any person lives or carries on business or another calling,
- where people assemble for purposes of business, government, education, religion, entertainment, or public transportation, or
- which is used for the overnight accommodation of persons.
Like many legal definitions, this one does not seem to comport with standard usage. It would seem that a car, particularly one used for work like ride-share or food delivery, would qualify as a building or inhabitable structure, contrary to how most people would define it. Case law on this issue is scarce, particularly recent case law, but it at least appears that an unoccupied car would probably not qualify. The definition is expansive, and an RV would likely qualify even if unoccupied, and anything even tangentially attached to a building, such as an awning or a trash storage area, almost certainly would.
Defenses Against Arson or Burning Charges
Most arson cases are charged on circumstantial evidence because people are seldom caught in the act of starting a fire. These cases rest on the classic trinity of motive, means, and opportunity. In other words, if someone has a reason to start the fire, the physical tools to start the fire, and the ability to be in the right place to start it, law enforcement will look at them very hard. Defense in these cases rests on challenging how law enforcement has characterized each element.
Motive is often alleged when someone benefits financially from a fire, usually by insurance. However, even accidental fires pay out their beneficiaries. More rarely, the allegation is that someone set a fire to harm someone. In either case, an experienced defense attorney will challenge every indication that their client had a reason to commit arson. Many law enforcement claims of motive rest on tenuous assumptions, and a good defense attorney can refute them.
The means to commit arson are many times established by expert testimony. Forensic arson investigators attempt to establish the intentional nature of a fire's origin. They will use scientific methods to show the use of accelerants or ignition devices. The best way to counter this is with opposing expert testimony. This can certainly be expensive but is usually the only option available.
Opportunity is usually taken as the ability to access the area where the fire was started. This is often the least convincing of the elements. Lack of forced entry to, for example, a house where a fire was started is taken as proof that the owner started the fire. A good defense attorney will be able to attack these arguments.
Defense of Right
The statute for arson second degree, which is basically setting fire to a building with no one present, contains a special provision for what is commonly called a defense of right. This defense can be used when the owner of a building sets fire to a building to destroy or damage it for a lawful and proper purpose. Presumably, this is almost always dilapidated buildings in a rural setting. The owner must be the sole owner, or all other people with a proprietary or security interest must consent to the burning. It is the responsibility of the defendant the assert this right.
Requisite Mental State
Arson and burning offenses range from a class A felony to a class C misdemeanor. The difference between a serious charge and a lesser one often depends on the mental state of the person starting the fire. The key words in the statute are knowingly, recklessly, and negligently. Knowingly means doing an act on purpose, aware of the likely results; recklessly is done with a conscious disregard of risks, and negligently means failing to be mindful of risks that a reasonable person would be aware of.
The circumstances of each arson or burning case are unique. How different people interpret the motivations of others in these unique circumstances will vary considerably. It is the responsibility of a defense lawyer to understand the complexities of each situation and present their client's actions in the most favorable light. This is a hard-earned skill that takes years of practice to attain.
If you find yourself charged with an arson or burning crime, hiring a defense attorney who has experience dealing with complex criminal cases is very important. Ruth Beerup has 25+ years of experience defending her clients against serious charges. She has focused her entire career on criminal defense, first in the public defender's office and then in private practice. Consultations are free, and Ruth is more than happy to answer any questions you have. Contact her using the phone number at the top of the page or the contact form on this page to get started.