Laws and Court Decisions Related to Fire Thesis

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¶ … laws and court decisions related to fire incendiary fire analysis and investigation. Incendiary fire analysis (arson) and investigation can be hampered by legal decisions that affect the fire investigator. The investigator must understand these legalities and ensure they conduct the investigation appropriately or the case could be lost in court, and the arsonist set free to wreak havoc in the future. Successful arson investigation can be done, but the legalities of it can get in the way of successful investigations in at least some cases.

Arson is one of the most dangerous types of fire across the United States, and most Americans would probably be surprised at how often it occurs. The Insurance Information Institute (III) notes, "Arsonists set fires that destroyed $878 million worth of property in 2007, down 1.2% from $889 million in 2006. These fires include factories, residential buildings, churches and motor vehicles, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)" (Editors, 2009). It is important to note that arson cases are extremely difficult to prosecute and solve, only 18% of these cases are ever closed in this country (Editors, 2009). Vandalism is the major cause of arson fires, and children are responsible for nearly 50% of the arson fires in the country (Editors, 2009). Appropriate arson investigation can help solve more arson cases and put more arsonists behind bars, making communities and families safer and secure in their communities.Buy full Download Microsoft Word File paper
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Thesis on Laws and Court Decisions Related to Fire Assignment

Each state has different arson laws, regarding what constitutes arson, and investigators must be thoroughly familiar with their specific state's laws. There are also immunity laws regarding information released to insurance companies, and most of all, individual legal rights concerning the investigation. Most experts recommend a thorough and detailed examination of the fire scene and evidence before investigating for arson, to help protect a suspect's rights, and to make sure the evidence will hold up in court. Two arson experts note, "Administrative and criminal law overlap in arson cases due to the nature of the investigation. In addition, individual legal rights vary depending on whether the investigation is conducted by a government official or a private individual" (Woods & Wallace, 1991). These laws evolved from case laws respecting civil inspections like health or fire inspections, and they relate to laws regarding due process, seizure, and search. They define how incendiary fires should be investigated. For example, a fire investigator may be hampered in the search for evidence because the owner of the building cannot be located in order to gain permission to search the building for evidence, or the owner may baulk for some reason. Experts Woods and Wallace continue, "Fire investigations, unlike most routine city inspections for health and safety, are often conducted under conditions where neither the owner's permission nor administrative warrants can be obtained when needed" (Woods & Wallace, 1991). If evidence is discovered without the proper warrants in place, it can be thrown out of court, leading to the eventual release of the arsonist.

These laws control the investigator's access to the scene, and they can be serious detriments to a timely investigation of the fire and its origins. The two experts state, "The fire investigator's primary concern is that a delay in gathering evidence-while waiting for a warrant or the owner's permission-may result in evidence being moved, tampered with, removed, destroyed, or compromised in some other manner" (Woods & Wallace, 1991). This could clearly impede the investigation of the fire, and in fact, there have been numerous court cases regarding the use of warrants and permission during fire investigations.

One case, Coolidge v. New Hampshire, the "Court held that if evidence of criminal activity is discovered during the course of a valid administrative search, it may be seized under the 'plain view' doctrine" (Woods & Wallace, 1991). However, in other cases, such as Michigan v. Clifford, the Supreme Court decided that an administrative warrant would be sufficient to investigate the cause of a fire, but if the investigation was for incendiary activity, the investigator had to show probable cause and had to get a criminal search warrant to search the premises again (Woods & Wallace, 1991). Most investigation checklists recommend that the investigator estimate how much time it will take to complete the investigation, note the time the consent to search form is signed, and make sure they conduct their investigation within that time frame. If they do not, they will have to obtain another consent to search form to return to the scene of the arson.

Another Michigan case, People v. Smith, a convicted felony murder/arsonist appealed his conviction on the grounds that there was not enough evidence to convict him. The fire investigators findings were charged as circumstantial evidence by the defendant, and the court ruled, "There is rarely direct evidence of the actual lighting of a fire by an arsonist; rather, the evidence of arson is usually circumstantial. Such evidence is often of a negative character; that is, the criminal agency is shown by the absence of circumstances, conditions, and surroundings indicating that the fire resulted from an accidental cause" (Lynch, 2007). The investigator's testimony and evidence, even though circumstantial, was based on sound judgement, and was deemed enough to convict the arsonist, and his conviction stood.

This illustrates the importance of a thorough investigation including meticulous collection and analysis of the evidence. In the People v. Smith case, the investigator uncovered two spots of origin, which smelled of accelerant (gasoline), and a partially burned rag that contained gasoline. That rag was analyzed in the lab and it contained gasoline, and the lab report was admitted as evidence in the trial. The investigator also ruled out ignition from other sources, which helped with the credibility of his testimony and evidence. The investigation and evidence collection was sufficient in this case, and it illustrates how important that analysis can be for a successful prosecution.

One of the most noteworthy cases of arson in recent history is the Mizpah Hotel Fire in Reno, Nevada, which occurred on October 31, 2006. The hotel, a residential hotel for low-income residents built originally in 1922. The structure had fire alarms, but no sprinkler system. The investigators concluded, "The fire originated on the second floor of the north wing when old mattresses stacked in the hallway of the hotel were deliberately set on fire by a resident of the hotel following an argument with a neighboring hotel resident" (Ockershausen and Cohen, 2008). The resident was subsequently arrested and convicted of arson and first-degree murder charges, since 12 people died in the fire and another 30 were injured.

The fire was so catastrophic that it was investigated by a national response team sent by FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security that examines some of the deadliest and costliest fires. The fire displaced 80 residents, and the building was so devastated that it was eventually demolished as a result of the fire. The investigation into the fire commenced the following day, and investigators obtained search warrants for one of the rooms in the hotel when it was determined the resident of that room might be connected to the fire. The investigation found the fire began on the second floor wing of the hotel. The investigators note, "Two mattresses were found in the foyer. Based on their footprint, the investigators were able to determine that the mattresses were in front of the door to Room 1. The fire pattern indicates that the fire started in the foyer in front of Rooms 1 and 2" (Ockershausen and Cohen, 2008). In fact, the defendant, Valerie Moore, eventually pled guilty to propping the mattresses in front of the other resident's door and lighting them on fire because she was drunk and angry with the resident. She avoided the death penalty by pleading guilty and will spend the rest of her life in prison (Bellilse, 2007). This case indicates the importance of a thorough investigation, even though the investigators may have an idea what caused the fire. They had eyewitness accounts of what occurred, but they were able to make those eyewitnesses more credible by their investigation, which led to the successful completion of the case.

In this case, the investigators gained access to the scene as soon as it was safe to enter, and they completed their investigation in a reasonable amount of time. In the course of their investigation, they also discovered several more victims of the fire that had not been recovered during the fire operations, indicating another reason quick investigation is so important. However, the case could have been severely challenged had they not been able to gain access to the structure after the fire. If they had to wait for permission or a warrant, the victims would not have been recovered as quickly, the evidence could have been tampered with or damaged by the elements (parts of the roof collapsed in the building), and this could have jeopardized the case. This illustrates how the laws governing arson and fire investigation can hamper investigations, and… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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APA Style

Laws and Court Decisions Related to Fire.  (2009, February 24).  Retrieved September 25, 2020, from

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"Laws and Court Decisions Related to Fire."  February 24, 2009.  Accessed September 25, 2020.