As a criminal defense attorney in North Charleston, South Carolina, I defend those who have been accused of committing the crime of arson. In this article, I explain the crime of arson in South Carolina, the penalties for arson, possible defenses, and the importance of hiring a private fire investigator.

How Does South Carolina Define Arson?

South Carolina statutes involving arson can be found under Title 16 – Chapter 11 Article 1 Section 16-11-20 and is defined as:

A person commits a violation of the provisions of this subsection who willfully and maliciously:

(1) causes an explosion, sets fire to, burns, or causes a burning which results in damage to a building or structure other than those specified in subsections (A) and (B), a railway car, a ship, boat, or other watercraft, an aircraft, an automobile or other motor vehicle, or personal property; or

(2) aids, counsels, or procures a burning that results in damage to a building or structure other than those specified in subsections (A) and (B), a railway car, a ship, boat, or other watercraft, an aircraft, an automobile or other motor vehicle, or personal property with intent to destroy or damage by explosion or fire, whether the property of the person or another.

What are the Penalties for the Crime of Arson in South Carolina?

S.C. Code §16-11-110, states that there are three degrees of arson, and each is a felony offense that can carry significant penalties for a conviction. This section also explains what actions considered as the crime of arson may include an application of fire or an explosive that results in any of the following:

  • Burning
  • Charring
  • Changing the fiber or composition of the structure
  • Discoloring
  • Scorching

First Degree Arson 
Arson in the first degree is defined as an individual who willfully and maliciously sets fire to, causes an explosion, or otherwise causes the burning of a dwelling house, building, structure, or any personal property, which results in the death of a person. Any person who aids or counsels in the commission of this act is also guilty of first-degree arson. If you are convicted of this crime, you could face a prison sentence of no less than 30 years.

Second Degree Arson 
Arson in the second degree is defined as an individual who maliciously and willfully causes and explosion, burns, or sets fire to a building, structure, house, or personal property, which results either directly or indirectly, the serious bodily injury of a victim. If you are charged and convicted of the crime of second-degree arson, then you could be sentenced to no less than 25 years.

Third Degree Arson 
This offense is defined as an individual willfully who maliciously sets fire, burns, or causes an explosion that results in damage to a building, structure, personal property, or dwelling house which results in bodily injury to another, or damage to the property. The penalties for a criminal conviction of third-degree arson include a maximum prison sentence of 15 years.

Can I Burn My Own Property in South Carolina?

Arson is associated with insurance fraud, which is a felony. Insurance fraud occurs when people purchase insurance on their homes, vehicles, businesses, or anything insurable, and burn those things for the insurance money. While you will not be charged with arson, you may be visited by the South Carolina Department of Forestry.

According to the South Carolina Department of Forestry:

You cannot burn household garbage, plastics, shingles, tires, lumber, rubber, or anything other than plant growth that originates on the site.

What Should I Do If I Am Accused of Arson?

If you are accused of arson, do NOT discuss what happened with law enforcement, even if it is to claim that you are innocent. Like other criminal charges, you should not talk to police or prosecutors without having your own attorney present. If a police officer tries to question you, ask to speak to a lawyer and politely refuse to answer any questions. I want to reiterate that you politely refuse to answer questions. A felony such as arson can escalate quickly if you decide to banter with the officers. The escalation could add additional charges.

What are the Possible Defenses for an Arson Charge in South Carolina?

The charge of arson should only be brought when the investigators have concluded that it can positively determine the cause of a fire can be attributed to arson. Many times the failure of an investigation conducted by the police and insurance companies to determine a cause of the fire will cause them to conclude that it was arson since all other possibilities have been ruled out. Their conclusion transfers the burden of proof from the prosecution to the defendant. The prosecutor will no longer need to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. It then becomes the burden of the defense to show you did not start the fire and it is always very difficult to prove a negative.

An arson defense begins with immediate access to an excellent private fire investigator and to the crime scene. The police investigation team will have already combed through the fire scene with the help of the insurance company experts before charges are brought and the defense investigation begins. It is critical to examine each conclusion of the government investigation before formulating the defense of the case. Test and retest the government’s theories and insist on corroborating information for their theories.

Why Hire a Private Fire Investigator for the Crime of Arson in South Carolina?

Arson investigators have usually retired firefighters or trained professionals with in-depth knowledge about types of fuel, how each fuel ignites and accelerates, and the impact each fuel has on the development of a fire. This could be invaluable to your defense.

If you have been accused of the crime of arson, call the Deaton Law Firm for a free consultation. You will need an experienced criminal attorney in Charleston to defend you from these felony charges. I will review your case to determine what additional defenses there may be for your charge.