According to the Houston Chronicle, a Galveston man was recently arrested for lighting a fire to one of our city’s many palm trees. In fact, according to court documents, he is suspected of setting dozens of other fires to palm trees over the past 20 years and only now is being arrested for many of these crimes. The most recent fire seriously damaged a family’s home, although fortunately no one was physically hurt.
This is a bizarre story, since we were unaware that anyone would find Galveston’s palm trees offensive. Unfortunately, Mr. Jason Smith’s hostility to our palm trees can end up costing him his freedom and result in other penalties for arson, as our Galveston criminal defense lawyer explains below.
Caught By Security Video
Mr. Smith’s most recent crime involved lighting a palm tree on fire beside a house located on 32nd Street in the Lost Bayou neighborhood. Investigators immediately suspected foul play because there were no observable reasons why a palm tree would catch on fire—no power line ran near the tree, and no flammable material was found burning nearby.
Fortunately, the police caught a break when a neighbor shared with them video taken at night from a security camera. The camera captured a man riding a bicycle who stopped at the house and used a lighter to ignite the palm tree before riding away. Police noted the suspect’s distinguishing features, such as size and hair color, as well as unique features about the bicycle.
The Galveston Police Department then identified the man in the video and confronted him at his home. He allegedly swore when told about the fire damage and was quickly apprehended. Police have charged him with arson, and he was held on a $100,000 bond in county jail.
This is not Mr. Smith’s first brush with the law. He was identified as the “primary suspect” for 27 other arson investigations in Galveston involving palm trees. If you’ve seen a charred tree recently, then you know who the state believes is responsible. According to police, he is suspected of operating most at night to avoid detection, but fire is not his only method of destruction. According to criminal records, he faced charges for using a chainsaw to damage palm trees in Galveston and was charged with criminal mischief.
Unfortunately, the most recent fire ended up damaging a person’s house in addition to the palm tree. That will result in more serious criminal charges. The state’s arson law is found at the Texas Penal Code § 28.02. Arson can be charged as a first-, second-, or state jail felony, depending on the circumstances.
The most serious type of arson involves lighting a fire with the intent to damage or destroy structures on open land or any building or vehicle within the city limits. If someone is injured or killed in the fire, then this is a first-degree felony. If no one is killed or injured, then it is a second-degree felony.
“Intent” pretty much means what you think it does. You light the fee with a particular result in mind, which is to damage or destroy the structure or building.
Arson is a state jail felony if you intend to start a fire and it recklessly damages or destroys someone’s building. Lighting a palm tree on fire right beside someone’s house is an example of recklessness. It shows a real disregard for the safety of other people, since it is no surprise if the fire were to spread to a nearby structure.
A state jail felony carries as punishment 180 days to 2 years in jail and a maximum fine of $10,000. Of course, these penalties are for a first-time offender. Someone with prior criminal history might face enhanced penalties.
Are You Facing Arson Charges?
If someone was hurt in a fire you started, you might face first-degree felony charges, which often results in life in prison. These penalties illustrate how seriously Texas takes arson.
You should immediately contact a lawyer at Tad Nelson and Associates. There are certain defenses you can raise to arson. For example, the fire might have been purely an accident. That defense is not available when you use a lighter to set a palm tree on fire, but it is available if a campground fire gets out of control or a discarded cigarette lights something on fire.
Call our law firm to schedule a consultation. We can offer more tailored advice once we understand the surrounding circumstances.