Articles Posted in Arson

As an experienced criminal defense attorney in Illinois, I have defended clients against a wide range of serious charges, including federal aggravated arson under 720 ILCS 5/20-1.1. Understanding the complexities of this statute, the penalties involved, and the broader consequences of a conviction is essential for anyone facing such charges. In this detailed article, I will provide insights into federal aggravated arson, the relevant statutes, the penalties, and the long-term effects of a conviction.

The Statute and Relevant Laws

Federal aggravated arson is a severe crime defined under 720 ILCS 5/20-1.1. According to this statute, a person commits aggravated arson when they knowingly damage, either partially or totally, any building or structure by fire or explosion and:

In terms of senseless tragedies, this one makes as little sense as any. One man is facing charges after he allegedly poured lighter fluid on a sleeping homeless man and ignited it. The homeless man, who was featured in a documentary, was known to Chicagoans as “the walking man.” He is not expected to survive the attack. 

A 27-year-old man has been charged. If the victim dies, the defendant will face charges of first-degree murder. Surveillance cameras show the man scoping the area for traffic before dumping the lighter fluid from a cup onto the sleeping man. The homeless man began thrashing wildly when a security guard noticed him and put out the blaze. 911 was immediately called. 

Police used the surveillance footage to track down the suspect, who told them that he had found a cup full of gasoline and wanted to set some trash on fire. When asked why, he told police he was an angry person. The defendant maintains that he was not aware that a person was sleeping there. Medical personnel have described the burns as “non-survivable.”

Arson is a serious crime in Illinois. If you are charged with arson, you could be facing serious criminal penalties, including jail time. There are always defenses to an arson charge. However, the law can get complex and it is necessary to have an expert navigate the law if you have the misfortune of being charged with this crime.

Aggravated Arson

A 49-year-old male resident of Centralia, IL, John Brown, was taken into custody after a day-long manhunt. The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department and Centralia Police Officers were able to locate the suspect on the 300 block of South Lincoln Street after Jefferson County Dispatch pinged Brown’s phone. Officials were taking action on reports and sightings of Brown until his phone was located.

IMG_1397When people think about crime, it is usually violent crime that comes to mind. Drug and gun related crime dominates the news, especially in the Chicago area. That said, property crimes are four times more prevalent in Chicago than violent crimes, and many such crimes are serious offenses. Being convicted of certain property crimes can result in serious consequences including incarceration and hefty fines and fees. Do not take property crime charges lightly. If you are facing any charges related to a crime against the property of another in the Chicago area, you need an aggressive Chicago criminal defense lawyer.

What are Property Crimes in Illinois?

Property crimes are those crimes involving the theft or the destruction of the property of another. The term property crime is an umbrella category under which many different misdemeanor and felony charges can be brought. Illinois recognizes numerous crimes against property, and defines property as anything of value. Some examples of property crimes Chicago-area residents are charged with include arson, burglary, shoplifting, and theft. Other property crimes include destroying or otherwise defacing public or private property, and vandalism. Different types of fraud, including identity theft, are also crimes against property.

Illinois state police are investigating a series of six fires that occurred last January that they believe were intentionally caused by two suspected arsonists. The fires involved a historic school house, a house whose occupants managed to run out of the house before it was engulfed, and sheds adjacent to main buildings, all along the same street in Marissa, IL.


Arson in Illinois

Under Illinois law, arson is a Class 2 felony that carries a potential three to seven-year prison sentence. It is the willful act of destroying someone else’s property valued at $150 or more by setting it on fire without permission from the owner. Even if you partly own the property, it is still considered arson if you don’t have a co-owner’s permission permission to set it on fire.

If the property is someone’s residence or is a place of worship, the act of arson becomes a Class 1 felony which is punishable by four to 15 years in prison.

Finally, arson can be counted an aggravated act and is classified as a Class X felony if the perpetrator knows that one or more persons are inside the building, or where someone suffers great bodily harm, permanent disability or disfigurement, or where a fireman or policeman on duty at the scene is injured.

A charge of arson may also be coupled with a charge of possession of explosives or explosive/incendiary devices. According to Illinois statutes, a person commits criminal possession of explosives or incendiary devices if he or she possesses, manufactures, or transports such devices and either intends to use the device to commit any offense. This is also classified as a Class 1 felony and comes with a sentence of four to 30 years in prison.

Expert Testimony in Arson Cases

Often, an arson case will hang on expert testimony from various fire investigators. However, over the years, problems have been identified with the reliability of expert testimony from fire investigators. Unlike other forensic sciences, fire investigations often involve the collection of burn patterns and debris alongside reports by the police, fire fighters, other fire investigators, and medical professionals. They often conduct interviews with eyewitnesses, victims, and the defendant who may disclose potential motives for arson such as vandalism or financial woes. This extra factual information about the offender and events surrounding the fire can be subjective and incorporate the investigator’s thinking on the events or motives of the fire, rather than the plain forensic evidence. This is often undisclosed to juries, and they are left to treat fire investigators’ testimonies as scientific even if they incorporated subjective and non-scientific information into their conclusions. Additionally, the fire investigator may be unknowingly influenced by all of this extra information and may impact his or her opinions and testimony. It may lead the investigator to rule out natural or accidental causes because of the bias that he or she unknowingly develops.

Additionally, there are a lot of differences in procedures and training between state, region, county, police and fire departments and fire investigators. There is no consistent standard across courts and jurisdictions for fire experts to be certified investigators. Much of the fire investigation field’s knowledge base is based out of individual and anecdotal experience about fires, and there is no formal training or specialization required to conduct fire investigations.

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A Northbrook woman was charged with residential arson for allegedly setting fire to the second floor of the home she shared with her mother. Neither the defendant nor her mother were home when the fire broke out.


Defense of Chicago Residential Arson

Residential arson has two elements that must be proven in order to gain a conviction. First, the prosecution must prove that the defendant knowingly, by either fire or explosive, damaged real property valued at $150 or more without the owner’s consent.

If arson is proven, the next step in proving residential arson is to show that the defendant knowingly damaged, in whole or in part, any building that is another person’s home. The defendant can be charged with residential arson even if he lives in the home as well – so saying “It is my home, I can burn it if I want” is not a viable defense if the home is shared by anybody else.

But that raises element of residential arson, which is proving that any other people in the home actually lived there. For example, if it can be proven in this case that the defendant owned the home and her mother was merely visiting her, then she could not be charged with residential arson since she did not damage the property of another – she damaged her own property.

It is also necessary to prove the amount of damages caused by the fire. If the damage was less than $150 then there can be no arson charge. A damages determination would also require a review of the home’s condition prior to the fire, in order to ascertain how much damage was caused by the fire versus how much damage was present before the fire.

Any arson defense requires an extensive investigation into the cause of the fire. The police and fire department, and possibly a homeowner’s insurance agent, would investigate and prepare a report on the fire’s origins. In addition to reviewing these reports, an independent investigation by forensic experts is also useful to get an unbiased third-party opinion on the possible causes of the fire. David L. Freidberg has a team of forensic experts at his disposal that can assist in this investigation.

Because an arson charge requires that the defendant knowingly set the blaze, an independent investigation can help determine possible causes for the fire that were purely accidental, rather than purposeful. Such causes may include:

  • Faulty wiring;
  • A smoldering cigarette;
  • A cooking appliance left plugged in and turned on, such as a hot pot;
  • Space heater or lamp tipping over;
  • Clothing or other object left on a radiator, space heater, hair dryer, or other heating device;
  • Fireplace fire not properly extinguished;
  • Large appliance, such as a television or computer, crashing and igniting;
  • Grease fire from cooking appliance, or;
  • Overloaded outlets.

If it can be shown that the fire began as a result of any of these scenarios, then it can be argued that the defendant did not knowingly set the fire, and as a result could not be found guilty of committing arson.

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