Principles of Arson Discovery Standing the Test of Judicial Review
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Principles of Arson Discovery Standing the Test of Judicial Review

Arson is a heinous and most aggravated offense, for it not only endangers human life and the security of habitations, but it evidences moral recklessness and depravity in the perpetrators. Many times Arson is committed to cover a murder!

Headlines such as "Oil Refinery Destroyed-Arson Suspected," "Fire Bug sets sixth church ablaze," "Fourth Restaurant in county destroyed by fire this month," and "Bigotry seen as possible cause of Arson" is frequently seen in the daily press.

Arson investigators are in a unique position in that the corpus delecti of the crime is not usually visible, and when it is, it must be preserved until the investigator arrives. He must be qualified to present expert testimony in the Courts as to his/her opinion that the fire was one of the incendiary nature - that is, deliberately set by human hands. This places a great responsibility on the police and fire personnel at the fire scene. The evidence proving the corpus delecti of an incendiary fire must be "protected". The unique circumstances surrounding this crime follow:

  1. Unlike the crimes of burglary, robbery, theft, and other offenses, the motives of the arsonist are hidden and difficult to identify. There are a number of reasons why people will commit this crime (e.g. Insurance).
  2. The crime itself is unusually difficult to identify. The fire often destroys evidence. In addition, the criminal is generally a law-abiding citizen having no previous arrest or criminal record and many times it is the person who has monetary involvement with the property.
  3. The instruments needed to commit the crime - matches, cigarette lighter, and candle, purchased and legally carried on the person. Thus, unlike the robber who is seized before or after his crime and arrested for carrying a deadly weapon or possessing the proceeds of his crime, the arsonist can pass undetected, even if the "tools of his trade" is found in his possessions.
  4. Finally, the only time a crime pattern may be used to arrest the arsonist is when it is the work of a pyromaniac or "fire bug.' This mentally ill person usually operates in the same general area of a community. It is the manner in which he starts fires which, are used to tie him to more than one case of arson.

AN ATTEMPT TO HIDE A CRIME: Occasionally, a criminal attempting to destroy or to conceal his activities commits arson. Typical of these is:

  1. The dishonest employee resorting to arson in order to hide the theft of merchandise or to destroy records to conceal thefts of company funds. In this latter instance, if the financial records are not completely destroyed, the pages that may furnish evidence against the embezzler are completely burned or missing.
  2. The burglar starting a fire to conceal the loss of the property stolen.
  3. The murderer setting fire to a dwelling or to a structure to hide his crime.

ARSON DEFINED: Originally common law defined arson as the willful and malicious burning of a house or the outbuilding of another only if the dwelling were occupied. While occupancy was one of the elements of the crime, it was not necessary for the occupants to be in at the time of the fire. The outbuildings were included in the definition, only if they were located close enough for the flames to present a danger to the occupants of the house. Common-law classified arson as a crime against the security rather than property. The occupant would, therefore, not commit arson by burning the house in which he lived and would be tried as misdemeanors.

Recognizing the weakness of the common law, statutory laws were enacted which included the burning of one's own building or other structures as arson. Many of the provisions were adopted by various states. These include the following:

  1. The intentional burning of any building or outbuilding, whether it is occupied or not.
  2. The burning of personal property in excess of an amount designated by the individual state, that is the property of another.
  3. Property of any sort, regardless of ownership, that is burned with the intent to defraud an insurance company or family inheritance.
  4. Attempted arson is considered as the arranging of combustible material to ignite a fire with the intent to burn a building for personal profit. No overt act was necessary to prove the crime.
  5. The accessory that aided and abetted the arsonist was liable to prosecution.

THE CORPUS DELECTI: A fire is considered to be accidental in origin until evidence proves otherwise. The investigator's first task is to demonstrate that a crime in fact was committed. Corpus delecti is established by showing the following:

  1. Burning occurred: The evidence must show that there was a fire. This may be ascertained by the testimony of the complainant, firemen, or the first officer to arrive on the scene. Physical evidence showing that the fire occurred will also be introduced, including photographs or portions of burned material.
  2. The Fire was Willful in Nature: It must also be shown that the fire was knowingly started. This can be established by introducing into evidence an actual incendiary device found at the scene or a portion of such an igniting device; laboratory reports of the unusual presence of accelerants - gasoline, or kerosene fumes; photographs of visible fire trails, and so forth. The testimony of expert witnesses showing that the fire could not have been of an accidental nature, and that the wiring, the heating system, or the structural components of the building were sound and could not have caused the fire.

PROVING THE CRIMINAL: After establishing the corpus delecti, the investigator must introduce evidence to show that the suspect committed the crime with criminal intent. Intent may be proven by showing that the interior of the building was in some manner altered, to either accelerate the burning rate (e.g. through the venting provided by breaking certain windows or making other openings), or to delay the discovery of the fire (by locking doors, covering windows and the like). Criminal intent may also be established by showing that the occupant failed to turn in an alarm or extinguish the blaze when he had an opportunity to do so. The motive or incentive to commit the crime need not be proven, but it is useful in assisting to establish intent, which is the will to start the fire.

THE PROTOTIPICAL ARSONIST: The known arsonist is generally, a young person, under twenty-one years of age. A survey of arrested arsonists shows that 65.2 percent of these persons arrested for this crime were Juveniles (under 18 years of age), while almost three quarters of those arrested (73.4 per cent) were under twenty-one years old. Fires of an incendiary nature are also ignited by persons seeking economic gain, attempting to conceal a crime, revenge, intimidation and by the pyromaniac.

ARSON FRAUD FIRES: Fraud fires are started to destroy or damage property in order to collect insurance, as a means of preventing a serious financial loss, to terminate an unprofitable lease, to rebuild or refurbish an old or outdated structure (home, building, business and so forth) and for any other reason that will bring monetary gain. The arsonist may be the proprietor or the operator of a business. He may be a person totally unrelated to the fire victim - and HMO/PPO adjuster or a contractor seeking additional work, salvagers, etc. The arsonist may also be an investor in an unprofitable business. The examiner investigating the cause of a business, commercial, or non-home entity, must be on the alert for indications of excessive fire insurance coverage and if the premium payments that were about to come due. Inquiries need also to be made to determine if the business or entity was on a sound financial base, and if the operator and anyone connected with the management or administrations of the business has a past history of business ventures destroyed or damaged by fire. Many times the examiner must extend the investigation to determine if any member of the corporation, a partnership, or church, stands to gain financially from the fire. One common fraudulent practice is to insure the stock actually in existence at the time the policy is obtained. After the insurance is secured, the store inventory is reduced, either by conducting a bogus sale or by removing the merchandise to another location. Following the fire, a claim is submitted to cover the cost of the stock that was allegedly lost and conversely, the prospect of sustaining a financial loss due to over-stocking certain merchandise may cause a business operator to set fire to his place of business. This is known as a trade or business fire after which the businessman then sells the unwanted goods that are smoke, fire or water damaged to the insurance company as adjustment for his losses. Another type of incendiary fire used for monetary gain is the burning of a dwelling or a structure to terminate a lease. This type of fire is not uncommon in deteriorating or changing neighborhoods. With the reduction in revenue, the rent suddenly becomes a financial burden and the tenant finds himself trapped by his lease...arson is then his solution to his problem.

A MEANS OF INTIMIDATION: Arson is the tool of the extortionist and racketeers of various sorts - labor and organized crime, or simply used by one businessman against another as a means of obtaining demands. Usually labor disputes or arson from the attempts of a syndicate-controlled business to expand into other commercial fields is difficult to solve, as this crime is the work of professional criminals. Another example of arson used for intimidation is the mysterious residential fires or "bombings" in communities experiencing racial or ethnic conflicts. Flames engulfing a home in the dead of night can carry a strong message that will tend to curb the liberal zeal of a member of the majority group, just as they can discourage and frighten members of a minority group from "moving in" a previously restricted neighborhood. In these cases, members of known radical groups must be closely investigated. I must limit this subject due to e-mail constraints.

-- Dr. Scott D.Neff, DC, DABCO, FFABS, DABFE, CFE.

& TM 1998 American Academy for Justice Through Science. All rights reserved.