The Spark that Could Send You to Jail: Arson in Canada

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On the Saturday afternoon of March 26, 2016, Montreal’s historic Snowdon Theatre was engulfed in black smoke. Ninety fire-fighters and thirty five vehicles later, the fire was finally brought under control. Though the roof of the building was damaged, the historic exterior and sign proudly visible from Décarie Boulevard remain mostly undamaged.

The police suspected arson, suspicions later confirmed by fire fighters. In case there were any doubts, photos and a video have since surfaced online showing a teenager setting fire to foam cubes on the second floor of the theatre where the blaze started. Though the police are questioning the authenticity of the photos and video, they’ve since questioned two teens and are seeking a third regarding the fire.

It goes without saying that arson is a crime, and that filming and photographing yourself doing it is unbelievably stupid especially if you post it online for all to see.

So we won’t talk about that.

We’ll talk about the crime of arson itself and how Canadian law defines it.

Arson is covered by articles 433 to 436.1 of the Criminal Code. The definition of the crime can be inferred by the language used in the laws themselves. If you “intentionally or recklessly” damaged property by fire or explosion, you are committing arson. The penalty depends on the degree of danger involved.

If you caused the damage and knew or were reckless as to whether the property in question was inhabited or not, you’re looking at a life sentence.

If the fire or explosion caused bodily harm, that’s also a life sentence.

If you intentionally and recklessly caused a fire or explosion damaging property that wasn’t wholly owned by you, you’d be looking at a maximum sentence of fourteen years.

If you damaged property by explosion or fire in a way that seriously threatened the property, health, and safety of another person, the penalty is also a maximum of fourteen years. That means that if you set a fire on your land and the blaze was so big your neighbor’s house caught fire and was damaged you could be facing a charge of arson.

Then of course, there’s the case of burning your property to commit fraud.

We’ve all heard the joke about the guy who bought the box of Cuban cigars, insured them, smoked them all, and then filed an insurance claim. In the joke the insurance company fights back by having the guy arrested for arson.

By law recklessly or intentionally setting a fire with intent to defraud another person, such as (for example) an insurance company could result in a charge of arson with a maximum sentence of ten years. The law has an additional caveat which allows the courts to infer that a person intended to defraud an insurance company if he or she was the holder or beneficiary of the fire insurance policy on the property.

There is also the crime of arson by negligence and neglect.

If you wholly or partly own or control property and don’t take reasonably careful measures to prevent or control explosions or the spread of fires and a fire or explosion on said property hurts another person or their property, you’re looking at a maximum sentence of five years.

Like the rule about fraud-related arson, this law also allows the courts the right to draw certain conclusions. In this case, the fact that a property owner failed to obey any law regarding fire and explosion control and prevention allows the courts to infer that the person didn’t take reasonable preventative measures that could have freed them from the charge of arson.

According to article 436.1 of the Criminal Code, if a person is in possession of the stuff to cause a fire or explosion for the purposes of committing arson, there’s the possibility of a maximum five year prison sentence.

Now let’s say you get drunk, so drunk in fact that you do something really stupid. Like set fire to your ex-girlfriend’s place destroying all the stuff inside.

That’s what happened to Paul Francis Tatton in September 2010. At the time he was living in a guest room of the house owned by his ex-girlfriend. One night he got really drunk, put a pan containing some oil on the stove, turned the stove on high, and went out to Tim Horton’s to get a coffee. When he got back about twenty minutes later, the house was on fire. Tatton was charged with arson recklessly damaging property and was facing a maximum sentence of fourteen years.

He was acquitted at trial and on appeal because the courts accepted the defense’s argument that arson is a crime of specific and not general intent. The difference between the two is that while specific intent refers to the knowledge of or intent to bring about the consequences of your actions, general intent requires only the performance of the actions.

Tatton’s defense team argued that arson is a crime of specific intent and that he was so drunk he couldn’t form said intent at the time of the fire. The Supreme Court disagreed and on December 9, 2015 granted the appeal and ordered a new trial. Arson, the court said, was a crime of general intent, and as a result self-induced intoxication was irrelevant and not a valid defense.

The moral of the story is that if you’re doing something that risks causing a fire or explosion, BE CAREFUL, and don’t do it drunk. If you have to set a fire or blow something up make sure you take proper safety measures and do it within the confines of the law.

Failure to do so could be the spark that sends you to jail.

* Featured image of the Snowdon Theatre being set on fire originally posted to Snapchat

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