Legislators, Chester County D.A. Say New Arson Law Will Provide Tougher Penalties, Stronger Protections

Area legislators and Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan held a news conference today in Thorndale to discuss Pennsylvania’s new, strengthened arson law and thank area emergency responders who battled a series of deadly arsons in the city of Coatesville in 2008 and 2009.

Senator John Rafferty (R-44), who sponsored Act 16 of 2014 was joined at the Thorndale Fire Company by D.A. Hogan, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-9), Senator Andy Dinniman (D-19), and Representative Tim Hennessey (R-26), who all strongly supported the legislation.

Rafferty introduced the legislation after serial arsonists set more than 30 fires in Coatesville several years ago. The fires caused more than $3 million in damage, left scores of people homeless and resulted in the death of an 83-year-old woman.

Act 16 creates a new class of crime known as aggravated arson and sets tougher sentencing guidelines.  A person can be convicted of aggravated arson if he intentionally starts a fire – or if he aids or pays someone else to start a fire – with the intent to cause bodily injury or knowing that someone was inside the property at the time.

“Each year, more than 267,000 fires are attributed to arson nationwide.  Arson results in $1.4 billion in property loss annually and causes more than 2,000 injuries and 475 deaths,” Rafferty said.  “But too often it is considered an insurance concern, primarily a ‘paper’ crime of fraud most affecting insurance companies.  This law recognizes arson for the deadly crime that it is.”

He thanked District Attorney Hogan who rallied community leaders and fire and emergency responders in support of the bill.

“During the Coatesville arson crisis, many civilians and firefighters were placed in grave danger by the reckless conduct of a few criminals.  One woman who was a concentration camp survivor from the Holocaust tragically was killed in one of these fires,” Hogan said.  “The new aggravated arson statute provides greater protection for both firefighters and innocent civilians.  Law enforcement, firefighters, and the citizens of Pennsylvania are grateful to Senator Rafferty for sponsoring this legislation and guiding it through to becoming a law.”

Senator Pileggi said the new law sends a clear message that arson is not just a form of insurance fraud, but a deadly and costly crime that puts innocent people and emergency responders in harm’s way.

“Arson is a deadly crime that has killed far too many firefighters and citizens. It devastates neighborhoods and communities, destroying property and leaving victims in fear,” Pileggi said. I’m pleased that we now have stronger laws which better reflect the seriousness of the offense.”

Senator Dinniman added that the new tougher penalties reflect the danger posed by those who commit arson.

“The penalty must fit the crime. And as we saw in Coatesville, arson is a serious and costly crime – the ultimate cost of which, is innocent life,” Dinniman said. “This legislation sharpens the teeth of our arson laws. Those who willfully threaten our families and our communities and put our emergency first responders in harm’s way will now be held accountable to higher standards and will face tougher sentences.”

Representative Hennessey joined participants in expressing gratitude to fire and emergency responders who responded to the Coatesville fires, putting their lives in danger to protect residents and property.

“I was happy to support this legislation that improved the safety of our first responders,” he said.  “We need to give them all the protection we can.”

The legislation increases penalties if a firefighter, police officer, emergency responder or civilian sustained injuries as a result of the crime. In addition, stronger sentences could also be imposed if more than three people were inside the property at the time of the crime or the arson resulted in more than $1 million in property damage.

The law also clarifies that a convicted arsonist could be charged with second-degree murder if the fire or explosion unintentionally caused a person’s death and first-degree murder if the cause was intentional.

“What happened in Coatesville could happen again in any community – so we need to take action to prevent more needless death and destruction,” Rafferty said.  “I am pleased that Pennsylvania is taking a stand against this deadly crime and those who commit it and I am grateful to the volunteers who put their lives on the line to battle these fires.”

CONTACT:

Carol Milligan – Senate Republican Communications – (717) 787-6725 cmilligan@pasen.gov

Julia Loehlein – Senator Rafferty – (610) 469-8390 jloehlein@pasen.gov