The Thief River Falls fire seems to have more twists and turns every time it makes headlines. Originally, the story was reported as an arson and a murder, but as more information is revealed, drug crimes and the loss of a young mother have been added to the story as well.
The murder within the arson is going to come with serious consequences if the alleged defendant is found guilty, but the penalties for arson may add decades onto the defendant’s sentence. He faces first degree arson — and even though this crime comes with a sentence of up to 20 years in prison, it’s not the only type of arson in Minnesota with such serious penalties.
Let’s go over the three different types of arson in Minnesota (arson, wildfire arson, and negligent fires) and what these charges mean for the defendants who are accused.
General Arson Laws in Minnesota
While there are three broad categories of arson in Minnesota, within this first category are five different degrees of arson.
In order to be found guilty of general arson, prosecutors have to prove that the defendant intentionally set fire to property or a dwelling. A “dwelling” refers to a place where people live: a house, apartment building, etc.
Setting fire to a dwelling or a building with people inside may result in the most severe charges here — first degree arson. Penalties for this charge include up to 20 years in prison and up to $35,000 in fines.
Not all general arson charges are that serious, however. The severity of the arson charge depends on what type of building or property was affected by the arson, how serious the damage was, the cost of the damage, and how the fire was started.
Fifth degree arson (intentional burning of real or personal property), for example, is a misdemeanor rather than a felony. It comes with penalties including up to 90 days behind bars and up to $1,000 in fines.
Talk to a lawyer if you have been accused of arson about what degree of arson charges you may face.
Minnesota Laws against Wildfire Arson
Arson that affects individual homes or dwellings is typically fairly easily contained and put out. Wildfires, however, have the potential to cause far more damage — and to a much larger area.
Because of this, wildfire arson is automatically a felony in Minnesota. Penalties for this type of arson start at up to five years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine.
In order to be found guilty of wildfire arson, prosecutors will have to prove that you intentionally set the fire.
Like general arson, the amount of damage caused by the wildfires will determine the severity of the consequences you face. Penalties get exceptionally serious if someone intentionally sets a wildfire that:
- Causes damage to at least 100 buildings or dwellings
- Burns 1,500 acres or more
- Damages crops in excess of $250,000
For arson of this magnitude, defendants could face up to 20 years behind bars and up to $25,000 in fines.
Additionally, if you are found with any tools or devices that could start a wildfire (explosive devices, flammables, etc.) but do not use them, you could still be charged with a gross misdemeanor.
Negligent Fires and Dangerous Smoking Charges in Minnesota
Not all fires are started with the intention to burn down a forest or a home. Electrical fires, leaving appliances on, or even smoking near flammable materials can cause fires.
Just because a prosecutor cannot prove that you intended to cause a massive fire does not mean you will be free from all penalties. If the fire caused damage to people or property, charges may be pressed for negligence or dangerous smoking.
The charges depend on who or what was damaged by the fire. If a person is found guilty of gross negligence in either causing or allowing a fire to burn and it results in damage to people or property, they may have to face jail time.
If the fire only caused damage to property, penalties could range from up to 90 days to up to three years in prison, depending on the value of the property.
If people are hurt in a negligent fire, the penalties increase. If a victim endured bodily harm after a defendant negligently started a fire or allowed it to burn, he or she may face up to a year in prison and $3,000 in fines. Penalties increase further if great bodily harm was involved — the defendant may then face up to five years in prison and fines of up to $10,000.
No matter what level or type of arson charges you face, the results of a conviction can be disastrous for your future. Moreover, there’s not a huge difference between bodily harm and great bodily harm — if you have been accused of one type of arson, it may be possible to argue for lower charges and a reduced sentence. In some situations, you may even be able to get charges dropped or dismissed altogether.
Only if you fight back with the strongest possible defense, though. Do not simply wait and hope for the best. Protect your rights and future by putting together your strategy as early as possible.
About the Author:
Christopher Keyser is a Minneapolis-based criminal and DWI defense attorney known for fighting aggressively for his clients and utilizing innovative tactics to get the most positive results. He has been featured in numerous media outlets due to the breadth and depth of his knowledge, and recognized as a Minnesota Super Lawyers Rising Star (2014–2015), a Top 100 Trial Lawyer (2013–2015), and a Top 40 Under 40 Attorney (2013–2015).