Youths playing with firecrackers can be charged with arson, court rules

The California Supreme Court sent a stern warning Monday to youths who play with firecrackers: If a blaze breaks out, you may be found guilty of arson.

The state high court ruled 5 to 2 in the case of two 17-year-olds who in July 2008 set off a cherry bomb in the foothills above Pasadena that caused five acres of brush to burn in the Angeles National Forest.

A juvenile court commissioner found that the teens did not mean to set a fire but knew that throwing the cherry bomb might ignite one. The teens were sentenced to home probation.

Justice Ming W. Chin, writing for the majority, said the teenagers were “willful and malicious” when they threw the firecracker onto a brush-covered hillside.


“This was not an accidental or unintentional ignition,” Chin wrote.

Justices Joyce L. Kennard and Kathryn M. Werdegar dissented, arguing that the minors had violated a state law against recklessly causing a fire, a less severe offense than arson.

“California’s arson statute applies only to fires that are set deliberately, not to those set accidentally,” Kennard objected.

Werdegar noted evidence that showed the minors wanted to make a loud noise, not ignite a fire.

“The minors, who had no cellphone and no prior involvement with the criminal justice system, ran down the hill and immediately volunteered to the first officer they encountered their role in starting the fire,” Werdegar wrote.

Lawyers in the case were unavailable for comment.