In the old days when I practiced criminal law, I once handled an arson case. I was trained not to ask my client if he or she committed the crime, but rather get their version of the facts and represent them to the best of my ability.
In my case, the alleged arsonist and I were reviewing the police report, which included the fire investigator’s theory on how the fire was started. To my shock, my client scoffed at the investigator’s conclusion saying “that’s not how the fire was started, I started it by (he explained in detail how he lit the fire) . . . those guys don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Ultimately, the arson charges were dismissed. Shortly afterward I switched to civil law.
ARSON STRUCTURE FIRE
Defendant Richard James Goolsby and Kathleen Burley lived together in one of several motor homes Goolsby owned and had parked on a vacant lot in San Bernardino County. Goolsby and Burley got into an argument.
Afterward, Goolsby pushed an inoperable motor home right up next to the motor home in which he and Burley were living and where Burley then was sleeping.
Goolsby used gasoline to set the inoperable motor home on fire. Burley got out with her dogs, but the fire spread to the motor home in which she had been sleeping, destroying both motor homes. The “good” motor home was in barely livable condition.
Goolsby was charged and convicted by a jury of arson of an inhabited structure. Because the felony conviction was his third strike, he was sentenced to a mandatory term of 25 years to life in state prison, part of the Three Strikes Law.
Goolsby’s court-appointed attorney appealed the conviction and prison term arguing that his motor home was not a structure under Penal Code section 451.
Under section 451, “A person is guilty of arson when he or she willfully and maliciously sets fire to or burns or causes to be burned … any structure, forest land, or property.” “‘Structure’ means any building, or commercial or public tent, bridge, tunnel, or power plant.”
The trial court, at the district attorney’s urging, focused on whether Goolsby’s motor home was a dwelling, i.e., a place in which he and Burley intended to live permanently. Based on that focus, the trial court permitted the jury to conclude a motor home is a structure for purposes of the arson statute. The jury convicted. Goolsby appealed.
MOTOR HOME STRUCTURE
The prosecutor presented no evidence to show that Goolsby’s motor home was affixed to the ground like a mobilehome might be. Apparently it was on wheels.
That proved to be a fatal mistake.
The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court concluding that whether the motor home was inhabitable or not was not the question, it was not fastened to the ground so it was not a “structure” under the Penal Code. Not guilty of arson of an inhabited structure.
So you’re saying to yourselves, retry Goolsby for burning down a motor home, not a structure, and call it a day prosecutor.
ALL CHARGES DISMISSED
The Court of Appeal not only dismissed the arson of structure charges but also analyzed whether the prosecutor could reduce the charges to burning down a vehicle or burning down something, anything but a structure.
It’s a little complicated, but the Court concluded Goolsby could not be charged with arson of property, versus arson of a structure, because that would violate the constitutional prohibition against placing a person twice in jeopardy for the same offense. All charges dismissed.
Goolsby is scot free — until his next serious felony conviction, then off he goes for 25 years.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee and Tahoe City, California, and Reno, Nevada. He was the Governor’s appointee to the California Fair Political Practices Commission involving election law and the Political Reform Act. Jim’s practice areas include: real estate, development, construction, business, HOAs, contracts, personal injury, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at the firm’s website www.portersimon.com. Find us on Facebook.