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Arson

What is arson?

In North Carolina, common-law arson is the willful and malicious burning of the dwelling house of another person. A dwelling house may be “burned” without being completely consumed or even materially damaged. “Burning” is sufficient if any part of the dwelling house is consumed, however small.

Under the common-law definition of arson, a “dwelling house” means an inhabited house. A person “inhabits” a house for purposes of arson if that person dwells, lives, resides, stays, or rests at the house. Mobile homes, manufactured-type houses, and recreational trailer homes can be considered “dwelling houses” if they are inhabited.

A person can be convicted of arson without burning a victim’s actual dwelling house. Arson may be established if the burning takes place anywhere within the “curtilage” of the dwelling house. “Curtilage” is defined as including the yard around the dwelling house as well as the nearby area occupied by barns and other outbuildings.

In addition, the house must be the dwelling house “of another.” A house is the dwelling house “of another” if someone other than the arson defendant lives there.

To sum up common-law arson in North Carolina, a person is guilty if they (a) willfully and maliciously (b) burn (c) the dwelling house (or areas within the home’s curtilage) (d) of another person.

How is arson categorized and punished?

Under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-58, there are two degrees of arson as defined at the common law. If the dwelling house burned was occupied at the time of the burning, then the offense is arson in the first degree. Arson in the first degree is punishable as a Class D felony. If the dwelling house burned was unoccupied at the time of the burning, then the offense is arson in the second degree. Arson in the second degree is punishable as a Class G felony. The difference in punishment based on whether or not the dwelling house is occupied comes from the recognition that the purpose of common law arson is to protect against danger to those who may be inside the house.

Wantonly and willfully burning an uninhabited house also carries stiff penalties in North Carolina. Although burning an uninhabited house is not technically considered arson because the house is not a “dwelling,” this offense is still punishable as a Class F felony.

Can a dwelling house be “occupied” for purposes of arson in the first degree by an individual who is deceased?

Yes. North Carolina courts have ruled that a defendant can be found guilty of arson in the first degree when the only occupant of the dwelling house is a person who is deceased. This applies to situations in which an individual in a dwelling house is killed and the house is then burned shortly thereafter. Although the dwelling house is only occupied by a person who is deceased at the time of the burning, the burning may constitute arson in the first degree when the killing of the victim and the burning of the dwelling house are so joined by time and circumstances as to be part of one continuous circumstance.

Under North Carolina law, is burning churches, schools, and government buildings considered arson?

No. In North Carolina, a willful and malicious burning is only considered arson if the building burned is the “dwelling house” of another person. Because churches, schools, and government buildings are not “dwelling houses,” they do not fit within the definition of common-law arson.

However, these burnings still carry severe penalties. Wantonly and willfully burning a church is punishable as a Class E felony, while wantonly and willfully burning schoolhouses and government buildings (e.g., the State Capitol, the Legislative Building, the Justice Building, buildings owned or occupied by the State or any county, city or town, etc.) is punishable as a Class F felony.

What if a first responder is seriously injured as a result of the burning?

Under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-69.3, if a person commits arson and a firefighter or emergency medical technician suffers serious bodily injury while responding to the burning, the person who committed the arson may be guilty of a Class E felony.

What should you do after being charged with arson?

The best thing you can do after being charged with arson is to contact one of the experienced criminal defense attorneys at Arnold & Smith, PLLC. Our experienced criminal defense attorneys are fighting on behalf of North Carolina defendants in courtrooms across Mecklenburg County and the greater Charlotte region almost every day. We will fight for you, giving your case the individual attention that it deserves, and doing everything we can to ensure that you have the best possible outcome. Call (704) 370-2828 to speak with someone at Arnold & Smith, PLLC today.