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US Federal Arson Laws


Setting a property on fire with the deliberate and malicious intent to harm or destroy is called arson.

And this could escalate to federal arson when it involves federal property.

The State of Nevada is mostly made up of federal lands. According to this report, the federal government owns 84.9% of land in Nevada so there is a high chance of someone directly or indirectly burning a federal property. After all, arson is already one of the most common federal crimes in Nevada and the rest of the country. In this article, we learn about arson and how you can face graver penalties when federal arson laws are violated.

What is arson? Is arson a federal crime?

The legal definition of arson is the intended burning of a property, whether public or private, where the subject is scorched, charred or burned. Someone who commits arson is called an arsonist.

There are varying degrees of arson as seen in NRS (Nevada Revised Statutes) 205:

First Degree

An act becomes a first degree arson when a person burns, aids or counsels others to burn a dwelling house, a mobile home, whether vacant or occupied as well as private properties which are inhabited by two or more individuals. This is an automatic category B felony.

Second Degree

A second degree arson is of the same essence. The only glaring difference is it becomes so when the burned properties are abandoned buildings or other structures. And similar to the first degree arson, this also holds a category B felony charge.

Third Degree

You are guilty of a third degree arson if you directly burn, aid, and, counsel the arson to an unoccupied personal property that is valued at $25 or more, a property that is under legal interest,  and any timber, shrubbery, crops, and vegetation that is not yours. This violation possesses a category D felony in Nevada.

Fourth Degree

Fourth degree is when a person attempts to burn or attempts to aid or counsel an arsonist on burning any of the establishments that were mentioned at the degrees above. This is a less serious charge and you can only be imposed with a category D felony or even a misdemeanor.

Take note that arson does not only constitute buildings or other structures, other properties such as vehicles, forests, and vessels are also part of the spectrum. And one major reason why some people commit arson is due to insurance fraud. They intentionally burn down properties—most of the time their own homes so they can obtain insurance money.

When does arson become a federal violation?

As we have stated before, an arson becomes federal arson when the property that was set on fire was under ownership of the federal government. The official code of the United States, particularly the 20 U.S. Code § 107e, describes federal property as “any building, land, or other real property owned, leased, or occupied by any department, agency, or instrumentality of the United States (including the Department of Defense and the United States Postal Service).”

And according to 18 U.S. Code § 81, properties such as “any building, structure or vessel, any machinery or building materials or supplies, military or naval stores, munitions of war, or any structural aids or appliances for navigation or shipping…” becomes under federal control when they are within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States. So if you knowingly start a fire on official government offices, naval ships, or air strips in Nevada, you are breaking federal arson laws and this is not far from happening. Many arsonist become under federal interest because they have no idea they are standing on federal land. The reason Nevada is mostly a federal land is because its topography is not ideal for farming and other types of cultivation. This is why Nevada chose to thrive in establishments of entertainment found in Las Vegas and other places. It also became a hub for the country’s military force which is a department owned by the federal government.

What are the penalties for federal arson?

First and second degree arsons are category B felony in Nevada which has penalties of 1 to 15 years of prison time (combined) with fines that could go up to $15,000 while third and fourth degree arsons are category D felony with punishments such as one to four years in prison and fines of $5,000.

A federal arson incurs very severe penalties. Once found guilty, you can be imprisoned up to 25 years. If deaths are involved or if the magnitude of the arson is critical, you could face life imprisonment.

What are the defenses to use against federal arson?

Fire is not easy to extinguish when it becomes large and totally widespread. One defense that you can use in the federal court is that the burning is not of intention, simply accidental, and cannot be contained due to the resilience and the promptness of the flames. A sample scenario is that your vehicle malfunctioned and unintentionally broke into a federal property, exploded, and caused fire due to flammable machineries.

Another effective defense is that you are intoxicated at the time of the burning and the act was performed without any intentions of federal arson, but rather because you have no control of your thoughts. Insanity is also one defense to consider. If these defenses does not fit you in any way, you could just ague that you were unaware that there are people inside the establishment. This could help lessen your charges.

You cannot pre-measure the damage of a fire. Since Nevada is arguably a land owned by the federal government, you will more or less be violating federal arson laws if you start one. It is bad enough that you destroy a particular property through flames, do not make it worse by aggravating the federal government. If you did not intend to start a fire, especially on a federal property or you are not the suspect at all, the best thing to do is to procure the help of a Las Vegas criminal defense attorney to help with your charges.

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