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NY Penal Law § 150.20: Arson in the First Degree

June 29, 2020 Federal Criminal Attorneys

Arson is the criminal offense by which one intentionally damages a structure by the use of fire or explosives. There are five different degrees of arson offenses in the New York criminal code. Which of these charges you will face depends upon factors such as whether or not a person was inside the structure at the time of the incident, whether or not anyone was injured, and how the fire or explosion was started. Arson in the first degree is the most egregious of the five arson offenses in the penal law. In fact, much like kidnapping in the first degree and murder in the first degree, arson in the first degree is one of the most serious criminal offenses in the New York criminal code. Pursuant to New York Penal Law § 150.20, you could face prosecution for arson in the first degree if you intentionally damage a structure by causing a fire or explosion and:

  • The fire or explosion is ignited by a propelled incendiary device
  • The fire or explosion is ignited by an explosive
  • The fire or explosion rendered serious physical injury to anyone
  • The fire or explosion was set with the expectation or receipt of a financial reward
  • Someone was inside the structure and you were aware that it was likely that someone was in the structure

An Example

In the matter of the People v. Rivers, 2011 NY Slip Op 8455 (N.Y., 2011), the defendant, Mr. Sherman Rivers, entered into a contract to sell an apartment building for $300,000. The sale contract required that the building be vacated of all tenants. In order to drive the remaining tenants out of the building, Rivers paid some local individuals to set fires throughout the interior of the building. Rivers was subsequently convicted of the crime of arson in the first degree on the basis of the fact that he caused a structure (his apartment building) to be damaged by fire with the expectation of pecuniary profit.

Offenses that are Related

Arson in the Fifth Degree: New York Penal Law § 150.01

Arson in the Fourth Degree: New York Penal Law § 150.05

Arson in the Third Degree: New York Penal Law § 150.10

Arson in the Second Degree: New York Penal Law § 150.15

Possible Defenses

If the arson in the first degree charge is based on a person having sustained a serious physical injury, a possible defense against it  would be based on the severity of the injuries suffered by the victim. According to New York Penal Law section 10.10(10), the term “serious physical injury” requires that the injury be one that creates a substantial risk of death or causes protracted physical impairment. If you can demonstrate to the court that the injury was not serious as defined by the statute, then the prosecutor would not be able to get a conviction of arson in the first degree against you.

A possible alternative defense against a charge of arson in the first degree is that you did not intentionally set a fire, rather you lit it by accident. If the fire was truly an accident, then the prosecutor will have a hard time convicting you of arson in the first degree.

The Sentence

The crime of arson in the first degree is one of a small handful of crimes in New York that is a class A-I felony. If you are convicted of this crime, you could spend the rest of your life behind bars. The minimum sentence for this offense is 15-40 years.

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