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What are Defenses to Arson in Pennsylvania?

July 09, 2019

By van der Veen, Hartshorn, Levin & Lindheim

It was at the end of April that two fires broke out in Bethlehem Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The man accused of setting the fires recently waived his right to a preliminary hearing. Upon leaving the courtroom, the man admitted to setting the fires, stating that he was “mad at God.” He now faces arson charges.

However, while the man admitted guilt, it’s important for anyone wrongly accused of arson to know that there are defenses available. To understand what they are, you must know what Pennsylvania law says about arson.

Arson Defined

The arson statute in Pennsylvania is found in Title 18 Article C, Chapter 33. This statute defines arson as setting a fire that places another person or property in danger.

There are three degrees of arson in Pennsylvania. Third-degree arson involves intentionally setting a fire that places a person or property in danger, even if no damage occurs. Second-degree arson occurs when fire is intentionally set to a property, or an explosive is used to intentionally destroy or damage an unoccupied building. First-degree arson is an intentional and unlawful fire that places another person in danger of injury or death.

It’s important to understand that the degrees of arson vary depend on the property damage done, and whether another person was injured. If another person was killed as a result of the arson, separate charges of murder are sometimes laid. For example, if a firefighter lost their life fighting a fire, a person may face murder charges in addition to arson charges.

Penalties for Arson in Pennsylvania

The crime of arson is taken very seriously in Pennsylvania. As such, those convicted face severe penalties. The sentences for arson vary depending on the degree of arson a person is charged with. They are:

  • First degree arson: 25 years to life in prison, if there was no death involved. If the arson resulted in a death, a person will face life in prison with no possibility of parole.
  • Second degree arson: Maximum of ten years in prison
  • Third degree arson: Maximum of seven years in prison

With such harsh penalties, those facing arson charges sometimes find the situation hopeless. It’s not, though. There are defenses to arson available, and an experienced defense attorney can help those accused use them to build their case.

Defenses to Arson

The best defense to arson is a case of mistaken identity. Law enforcement officials are often eager to catch arson suspects, most often due to public pressure to do so.

Due to this, they will often rely on evidence such as video surveillance, or cellphone pictures caught at the scene. Detecting facial features and other definable marks using these methods is difficult. It’s perfectly reasonable for law enforcement to name the wrong suspect.

Under the statute, a person must knowingly set a fire and not make any attempt to stop it. Arson cases sometimes involve someone that mistakenly left a gas stove turned on, or that unknowingly flicked lit cigarette ashes somewhere that caught fire. When a fire was started unintentionally, the prosecution typically doesn’t have enough evidence to get a conviction for arson.

Call the Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorneys for Help with Your Arson Case

If you’ve been charged with arson, you need the help of the Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers at van der Veen, Hartshorn, Levin & Lindheim. We’ll help you build a solid defense to have your charges reduced, or dismissed altogether. Call us today or contact us online to learn more about how we can help.


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