Can You Go to Jail for Accidentally Starting a Fire?
Is Accidental Fire a Crime?
The data below demonstrates how dangerous and widespread fires can be in New Jersey and nationwide. For this reason, people who start fires could be charged with arson regardless of whether or not it was an accident.
In 2018, 599 fire departments reported incidents to the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS). Of all New Jersey fires that occurred that year, 1.9 deaths and 10.1 injuries per 1,000 fires occurred. Compare this to the national average in 2018, which is 2.5 deaths and 9.8 injuries per 1,000 fires. For fire casualties that occurred in residences that same year, 3.2 deaths and 17 injuries per 1,000 fires occurred, with the national average for home fires being 6.1 deaths and 25.3 injuries per 1,000 fires.
Although fire-related deaths and injuries in New Jersey are generally below the national average, that doesn’t mean you should take this matter lightly. Prosecutors will go the distance to put suspected arsonists behind bars.
Types of Arson Charges & Penalties
If a person starts a fire intentionally or accidentally, they could go to jail for arson. N.J.S.2C:17-1 breaks it down into aggravated arson, arson, and other related offenses, which we describe below:
Aggravated arson - A person is guilty of aggravated arson if they start a fire or cause an explosion on their property or another’s under one or more of the following circumstances:
- They purposely or knowingly place another person in danger of death or bodily injury
- They commit such acts for the purpose of destroying another person’s building or structure
- They recklessly place another person in danger of death or bodily injury for the purpose of collecting insurance for the destruction or damage to such property
Aggravated arson is a crime of the second degree, punishable by 5 to 10 years in prison and/or up to $150,000 fines. A judge may also order the defendant to pay for the losses, injuries, and damage incurred from the fire or explosion.
Arson - A person is guilty of arson if they purposely start a fire or cause an explosion on their property or another’s under one or more of the following circumstances:
- They recklessly place another person in danger of death or bodily injury
- They recklessly place another person’s building or structure in danger of damage or destruction
- They commit such acts for the purpose of collecting insurance for the destruction or damage to such property
Arson is a third-degree crime punishable by 3 to 5 years in prison and/or up to $15,000 fines. As with an aggravated arson conviction, a judge may order the defendant to pay restitution for the losses, injuries, and damage resulting from the offense.
Failure to control or report a dangerous fire - A person who knows that a fire is endangering life or a substantial amount of another person’s property and fails to:
- take reasonable measures to put out or control the fire, when they can do so without substantial risk to themselves; or
- or give prompt fire alarm
commits a crime of the fourth degree. A conviction will result in up to 18 months in jail and/or up to $10,000 fines in addition to possible restitution for the damage, injuries, and losses resulting from the offense.
Any person who pays or accepts any form of consideration, such as money or any other pecuniary benefit, for the purpose of starting a fire or causing an explosion in violation of N.J.S.2C:17-1 commits a crime of the first degree. If convicted, the penalty is 10 to 20 years in prison and/or $200,000 fines.
Accidental Causes of Fire
As you can see from the arson penalties above, New Jersey laws do not mess around with these types of crimes. Although you may not have perceived your actions as reckless or intentional, prosecutors may try to prove otherwise.
To better help you avoid getting charged with arson, we describe some common causes of fires below:
Common Causes of Accidental Wildfires
- Campfires left unattended
- Burning of debris
- Equipment use and malfunctions
- Negligently discarded cigarettes
Common Causes of House Fires
Cooking or cooking appliances such as cookers, ovens, grill pans, microwaves,
and toasters, are among the top causes of accidental house fires. To best
avoid this, see the tips below:
- Never leave cooking unattended
- Turn off hobs and ovens when finished cooking
- Keep flammable items such as tea towels and oven gloves away from the cooker
- Keep oven and grill pans free from a build-up of oils and grease, which can easily catch fire
- Never throw water onto an oil-based fire
Electricity supplies or other electrical equipment and appliances such
as plugs, lighting and cables, washing machines, dishwashers, and tumble
dryers are sources of house fires. Try to avoid this by:
- Never overloading sockets
- Never leaving electrical appliances such as dishwashers or washing machines running overnight or when you leave the house
Avoid starting a house fire from smoking or smoking-related materials such
as cigarettes, matches, and lighters by:
- Never smoking in bed or when feeling drowsy or tired
- Always stubbing cigarettes out fully in an ashtray
What to Do If You’re Charged with Arson
If you were accused of arson in Bergen County, our attorneys can defend your freedom and fight your charges. Your accusations should not take away your rights and tarnish your good name, which is why we strive to minimize the impacts of your case at every stage of the process.
Discuss your charges with us by reaching out online or at (201) 574-7919!