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Arson Law Revisions

The North Carolina General Assembly recently passed S.L. 2022-8 which makes various changes to the existing arson laws. The new criminal provisions go into effect on December 1, 2022 and apply to offenses committed on or after that date. The law includes a savings clause which provides that prosecutions for offenses committed before the effective date are not abated or affected by this act, and the statutes that would be applicable but for this act remain applicable to those prosecutions.

Increased punishment for first and second degree arson. G.S. 14-58 provides for two degrees of arson. If a dwelling burned is occupied at the time of the burning, the offense is first degree arson and is punishable as a Class D felony. If a dwelling burned is unoccupied at the time of the burning, the offense is second degree arson. The new law increases the punishment for second degree arson from a Class G felony to a Class E felony.

Burning of jails or prisons. The new law adds G.S. 14-59.1 which provides that if any person wantonly and willfully sets fire to, burns, causes to be burned, or aids, counsels, or procures the burning of a penal institution, the person shall be punished as a Class D felon.

Burning of religious buildings. Under current G.S. 14-62.2, the burning of any church, chapel, or meetinghouse is a Class E felony. The new law expands the statute to include synagogues, temples, longhouses, mosques, or any other building that is regularly used and clearly identifiable as a place for religious worship.

Burning of commercial structures. The new law also adds new G.S. 14-62.3 to provide for the burning of commercial structures. Under this new statute, commercial structures are defined as any building or structure that is designed principally for the manufacture, distribution, or exchange of goods or services, or for any other business or trade purpose. Burning of an occupied commercial structure is punishable as a Class D felony and burning of an unoccupied commercial structure is punishable as a Class E felony.

Injury to first responders. Current G.S. 14-69.3 punishes a person as a Class E felon if the person commits any arson offense and a first responder (firefighter, law enforcement officer, fire investigator, or emergency medical technician) suffers serious bodily injury while discharging official duties on or near the property. The new law expands the statute to include offenses involving serious injury. Under this section of the statute, a person is guilty of a Class F felony if the person commits an arson offense, and a first responder suffers serious injury while discharging official duties on or near the property.

Statutes providing for greater punishment. The language of several of the arson statutes has been amended to state that the given punishment applies unless the conduct is covered under some other provision of law providing greater punishment. With the inclusion of this provision, if the same conduct is punishable under a different statute carrying a higher penalty, a person can only be sentenced for the higher offense.

Disqualification from service. Effective for applications submitted on or after June 14, 2022, any person who applies for a paid or volunteer position with the fire department will be subject to a criminal background check. Under new G.S. 143B-943(d1), an applicant will be prohibited from serving in a paid or volunteer position with a fire department if the applicant’s background check reveals a conviction of arson or another felony conviction involving burning or setting fire under Article 15, Article 22, or any other Article of Chapter 14 of the General Statutes.

If you have any questions about the application of these new provisions, please feel free to email me at bwilliams@sog.unc.edu.