Posts tagged with "arson"

Arson Convict Loses His Appeal: Evidence Pointed to Intent to Destroy Building in Suicide Attempt

In a recent criminal law matter, the Appellate Court of Connecticut declined to reverse a defendant’s arson convictions, finding sufficient evidence to establish the essential elements of the crime.

This case arose from an incident that occurred on October 13, 2006. Police responded to the multi-resident apartment building where the defendant lived, following a report that the defendant was threatening to commit suicide. After they arrived, another resident was seen leaving the building because she was “nervous” about the defendant’s conduct. Officers were unsuccessful in communicating with the defendant, who refused to speak with them.

Smoke soon appeared in the building, and though the defendant climbed onto the fire escape, he reentered the building when officers asked him to come down. The fire intensified but responders could not enter the building because they feared for their safety in light of the defendant’s behavior. The defendant fell from a third-story window and was apprehended with effort, and firefighters promptly attempted to suppress the fire. However, a portion of the roof collapsed and they had to exit the building. The fire was eventually put out but nonetheless caused severe structural damage. The fire marshal did not find an accidental cause for the fire and placed its origin in the defendant’s apartment, but was not definitive on the cause.

The defendant was charged with and convicted of two counts of arson in the first degree (under different subsections to address risk of injury to other occupants and the firefighters) and interfering with an officer. On appeal, the defendant argued that the State provided insufficient evidence that he “intentionally started the fire,… specifically intended to destroy or damage the building and… had reason to believe that the building was or may have been occupied or inhabited at the time the fire started.”

Intent is often inferred from circumstantial evidence where direct evidence is lacking. In arson cases, it is permissible to use the lack of evidence that the fire was caused accidentally, in light of other evidence bearing on intent, to infer that the fire was instead intentionally started. In this case, the Appellate Court cited numerous pieces of circumstantial evidence supporting the jury’s findings: the origin of the fire, the fire marshal’s conclusions, the defendant’s destructive emotional instability, and the fact that no one else left the building after the fire began other than the defendant. Therefore, a jury could reasonably infer that the defendant intended to start the fire.

The defendant next argued that his conduct “indicated recklessness or indifference to the damage [the fire] would cause, not specific intent to damage or destroy the building.” However, the Appellate Court was not persuaded, arguing that even if suicide was the primary goal, the jury could reasonably infer that “he intended to damage the building as a means to that goal.” Therefore, as with the previous argument posed by the defendant, this one equally failed.

Finally, the defendant claimed he had no reason to believe anyone else was in the building at the time he started the fire. However, the evidence worked against him: another resident left the building shortly before it was started. At trial, this individual testified that she typically stays home during the daytime. In addition, another resident’s vehicle was located on the scene. Therefore, a jury could reasonably have inferred that “the defendant had reason to believe that one or more tenants may have been in the building during the incident.” Therefore, the Appellate Court affirmed the judgment.

When faced with a charge of arson, an individual is best served by consulting with an experienced criminal law practitioner. Should you have any questions regarding criminal defense, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County at 203-221-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

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Appellate Court Considers Whether Evidence of Previously-Set Fire Was Improperly Admitted in Arson Trial

In “Double Jeopardy Not Implicated in Case Where Man Purposefully Burned Down His Home to Collect Nearly $400,000 in Insurance Payments,” the Appellate Court of Connecticut rejected a defendant’s claims that his constitutional protections against double jeopardy were violated when he was convicted of both larceny in the first degree and insurance fraud. The Court considered other matters on his appeal, including whether or not the court improperly admitted testimony.

In her sworn statement, the defendant’s daughter informed police that the defendant had purposefully set her car on fire during the summer of 2001. She explained that she did not want to have to continue making her car payments, so the defendant “told [her] that he was going to start a fire in the car and make it look like an electrical fire so that she could collect the insurance and pay off the automobile loan.” His effort was a success: police determined the damage was accidental, the car was deemed a total loss, and the insurance company, as expected, paid her claim.

Prior to the defendant’s trial for arson, insurance fraud, and larceny, he filed a motion seeking to exclude any evidence related to car fire. He argued that he did not receive any of the proceeds, was never charged for a crime, and the evidence was more prejudicial than probative. The State countered that this evidence of misconduct was admissible because it was relevant in establishing intent as to whether the house fire was accidental and showed a common scheme. The court denied the motion but issued a jury instruction that the purpose of the evidence was to establish “a method or plan or scheme… in the commission of criminal acts or the existence of intent or the absence of accident.”

Generally, evidence of a defendant’s prior bad acts is inadmissible to prove guilt on a present charge. However, “evidence of crimes so connected as to tend directly to prove the commission of the charged crime is admissible.” Such evidence will be admitted only if it is relevant to a statutory exception, such as proving intent, and the probative value outweighs the prejudicial effect. In this case, the Appellate Court agreed with the defendant that the daughter’s statement was inadmissible to show a common scheme or plan because the car fire occurred more than a year before the house fire. However, the Court sided with the State and found the evidence was admissible “to prove the closely related issues of intent… lack of accident or mistake.” As the Court elaborated:

The evidence that the defendant started a fire in the automobile in order that his daughter might recover insurance proceeds tended to prove that he knew how to start a fire that appeared to be accidental in nature and that he intentionally set the fire to his residence to recover insurance proceeds.

Whether or not the house fire was accidental in nature became an issue in the case, so the evidence regarding the car fire made “utterly limpid his subsequent intent to burn down his house… to recover the insurance proceeds.” After determining the evidence would not “shock the sensibilities” of the jury, resulting in undue prejudice to the defendant, the Appellate Court affirmed judgment as to this aspect of the defendant’s appeal.

When faced with a charge of arson, fraud, or larceny, an individual is best served by consulting with an experienced criminal law practitioner. Should you have any questions regarding criminal defense, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County at 203-221-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

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Double Jeopardy Not Implicated in Case Where Man Purposefully Burned Down His Home to Collect Nearly $400,000 in Insurance Payments

In a recent criminal law matter, the Appellate Court of Connecticut determined that conviction for first-degree larceny and insurance fraud did not violate double jeopardy protections, or that the latter charge was a lesser-included offense of the former.

This case arose from an incident that occurred on December 15, 2002. Police responded to a fire at the defendant’s home, where investigators concluded that the fire appeared “accidental in nature,” though its origin was unknown. The defendant collected over $386,000 under his insurance policies for structural damage, debris removal, loss of personal property, and living expenses.

One year later, the home in which the defendant’s daughter lived was burglarized. Her laptop, which the defendant previously stole from his employer, was among the items taken. Police later recovered the laptop and called the daughter; when she came to collect it, police explained that the defendant claimed it was stolen. In turn, the daughter revealed that the defendant purposefully burned down their house on the night of December 15, 2005. In a sworn statement, she explained that the defendant was having financial issues and told her of his plan, asking that she help him transport items to a rental storage unit. After the fire, the defendant “was laughing at the fire investigators calling them ‘stupid… because he thought he got away with [setting the fire].”

Police reopened the investigation and obtained a search warrant for the defendant’s newly built house, where they found many items listed in the insurance claims as lost to the fire. The defendant was charged and convicted for arson in the first degree, larceny in the first degree, insurance fraud, and conspiracy. The defendant appealed, arguing, in part, that his conviction for both first-degree larceny and insurance fraud violated double jeopardy.

Under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a criminal defendant cannot receive two punishments for two crimes, which he asserts to be a single crime, arising from the same act and prosecuted in a single trial. To be entitled to this double jeopardy protection, a criminal defendant must show that the charges arise from the same transaction or occurrence and that the charged crimes are, in fact, the same offense. If, however, the court determines that each charge requires proof of an element that the other does not, double jeopardy is typically not implicated.

In this case, the Appellate Court determined that larceny in the first degree and insurance fraud each possess unique essential elements. The former does not “require any proof as to the method or manner of obtaining the currency,” while the latter did not have a requisite dollar amount for the value of the property taken. The defendant countered that because insurance fraud is a lesser-included offense to larceny in the first degree, his constitutional rights were violated.

Even where two charges have unique elements, double jeopardy may nonetheless be implicated if the two charges are a lesser-included and greater offense. A lesser-included offense is one that must first be completed to make it possible to commit the greater offense. As an example, assault is a lesser-included offense to robbery, because every robbery includes the commission of an assault. If, however, the lesser offense need not be committed, it is not an included offense. In this case, the Appellate Court determined that insurance fraud was not a lesser included offense because the commission of larceny did not require the presentation of false, incomplete, or misleading statements in support of a fraudulent claim. Therefore, with this respect to the appeal, the Court affirmed judgment.

To see how the defendant fared on his claim that the court improperly admitted evidence, please read “Appellate Court Considers Whether Evidence of Previously-Set Fire Was Improperly Admitted in Arson Trial.”

When faced with a charge of arson, fraud, or larceny, an individual is best served by consulting with an experienced criminal law practitioner. Should you have any questions regarding criminal defense, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County at 203-221-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

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