Arson Crimes in Florida: Penalties, Definitions & Defenses

In simple terms, arson in Florida is the action of setting fire with the intention to destroy or damage property. Regardless of the motives behind it, arson is a serious offense punishable by imprisonment and hefty fines. As a result, if you have been accused or are under investigation for these charges, you should speak to a criminal defense attorney.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement informed there were 1305 arson offenses in 2020. There were also 102 arson additional attempts. Florida does not take arson crimes lightly. In the following sections, you will find key information about this type of crime, its penalties, and some potential defenses.

Should you want to explore the legal avenues for your case, contact the St. Petersburg criminal defense attorneys at Goldman Wetzel to book a free consultation. 

What Constitutes Arson in Florida?

According to Florida Statute §806.01, an arson offense occurs when a person intentionally and unlawfully damages any dwelling or structure by setting it on fire or causing an explosion. People can also be charged with arson if they damage others or their own property while committing a felony. 

In simple terms, an arson crime in Florida takes place when a person sets a property on fire intentionally and without having a legitimate purpose to do so. But even if you were charged with these crimes, to convict you, the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that: 

  • You caused a fire or explosion on purpose;
  • By doing this, you damaged a dwelling (or its contents) or any structure. 

When it comes to arson in Florida, it is not necessary to prove that you actually had the intention of damaging property to convict you for this crime. Additionally, the prosecutor will also look at other elements depending on the severity of the offense. 

As established before, arson is not limited to damaging dwellings and their contents, but also any structure. Based on the definition provided by Florida’s legislation, a structure could be any building of any kind, an enclosed area with a roof over it, or any property and its dependencies. 

Charges are harsher if the damaged property is occupied or is a place where people usually are. Examples of structures include, but are not limited to:

  • Detention centers
  • Health care facilities
  • Department stores
  • Portable buildings
  • Any vehicle (vessel, aircraft, watercraft, etc)
  • Business establishments
  • Office buildings 
  • Educational institutions
  • Churches 

Penalties for Arson in Florida

Even though it is a property crime, arson is considered a felony offense in Florida. Depending on the severity of the offense, the defendant could face a charge for arson in the first or second degree

The main difference between the level of arson offenses lies in human occupancy. If the offender knew or had reason to believe that the damaged property was a place where people were present, he or she could be charged with first-degree arson

Arson in the second-degree happens when the alleged offender deliberately sets fire to a structure where people are not present (for example, a corner store after business hours). Arson in the second-degree also includes damaging property by fire or explosion while committing another felony. 

graphic explaining arson charges in florida

If another person was harmed as a result of an arson crime in Florida, you are likely to face an additional and separate charge. Below is a table with the penalties associated to arson offenses:

OffenseType of ChargeMaximum Imprisonment  Maximum Fine
Arson in the first-degree1st degree felony30 years$10,000
Arson in the second-degree2nd degree felony15 years$10,000
Arson resulting in great bodily harm of another2d degree felony15 years$10,000
Arson resulting in the injury of another1st degree misdemeanor1 year$1,000

In addition to imprisonment and penalties, you may also be required to pay restitution for the destroyed property. 

Arson in the first or second degree are severe convictions on their own. However, these offenses are often the result of people committing acts of vandalism, trying to destroy evidence, carrying out hate crimes, or trying to collect insurance money. Therefore, many offenders charged with arson could face additional charges and penalties. 

Example of arson in Florida

As mentioned above, one of the key elements of severe arson charges is whether or not the property is a place where people are normally present. In Stevens v. State, 195 So. 3d 403 (Fla. 2d DCA 2016), the defendant was charged with arson in the first-degree for setting fire to a trailer home. 

Mr. Stevens set a fire to the trailer home to conceal the fact that he murdered and robbed Epitacio Antonio Hernandez-Beltran inside of his trailer home. Because the definition of structure is vague, the defense requested the reduction of the arson charge to second-degree arson. 

They argued that the trailer home was more suitable for the definition of structure, not dwelling. And as a result, the charges should be lesser. However, the prosecutor proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the trailer home was used as a dwelling by Beltran and his wife. 

Because there was enough evidence of human occupancy, the court rejected the motion and kept the charges for first-degree arson. 

Statute of limitation on arson charges 

In Florida, the statute of limitations for a first-degree arson is four years. On the other hand, arson offenses classified as second-degree felonies have a statute of limitations of three years. Finally, the prosecution has two years to pursue a charge of arson resulting in injury of another. 

Potential Defenses to Arson Charges

The criminal defense lawyers from Goldman Wetzel have extensive experience representing clients charged with arson in Florida. Given that we take a personal and customized approach, the defense strategies for your case will vary depending upon the circumstances of your case. 

That said, here are some examples of potential defenses we may be able to use:

  • Prove that you had the authority to start the fire (e.g. a permit for clearing land). 
  • Show that the fire was an accident and that you did not willfully start it. 
  • Demonstrate that the prosecution does not have enough evidence to prove destruction. 
  • Prove that you have an alibi and you did not commit the crime. 

If you want to explore the potential defenses for your case, you should consult a criminal defense attorney. 

Contact a Florida Arson Defense Lawyer

Arson crimes in Florida are vigorously prosecuted, and being convicted for these charges can lead to long-term imprisonment sentences and hefty fines. Therefore, if you are facing arson accusations, you should seek the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney. 

With over 20 years of experience, the attorneys at Goldman Wetzel have extensive experience representing clients facing charges for violent and property crimes in the Tampa Bay Area. Call 727-828-3900 to schedule a free consultation. We are here to fight for your rights and your future.