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1st DCA overturns state prosecutors’ arson case against 11-year-old

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A trio of state appeals court judges on Wednesday overturned a lower court’s decision in the case against an 11-year-old boy who accidentally set fire to his father’s shed in 2014.

In an opinion penned by Judge Clayton Roberts, the court found a motion to dismiss the case in Duval Circuit Court should have been granted, as state prosecutors failed to build a prima facie case for applying the crime of arson to the boy’s actions.

While left in the care of a friend of his father’s in a rented trailer park lot, the boy — represented by his initials, M.T.A., because he is a minor — stumbled upon a blow torch and began to set fire to items from a junk pile before quickly extinguishing them, “behavior not uncommon in an 11-year-old boy” in the court’s words.

Before long, the boy ignited an oscillating fan using the torch and an aerosol can of lubricant he found. Though M.TA. testified the fire was “not that close” to a nearby shed owned by his father, the fire spread quickly onto an adjacent patch of grass and threatened to set the shed ablaze.

At that point, the boy ran for help, but it was too late: the shed had become a conflagration, and the boy ran across the street to call 911. He originally lied about setting the fan on fire, but later ‘fessed up to Fire Marshall investigators.

State prosecutors, led by the office of Attorney General Pam Bondi, jumped on the boy’s initial false claim to build its case for arson charges in trial court. Judge Roberts said that in doing so, they argued an erroneously narrow case that ignored the broader facts of the case.

“The State makes much of this initial dishonesty, implying an admission of guilt,” wrote Roberts. “We believe this dishonesty could equally be viewed as normal behavior of a scared 11-year-old child and do not find it compelling. The appellant did eventually tell the Fire Marshall the truth. The Fire Marshall testified that his investigations regarding the burn patterns and location of the fan were consistent with the appellant’s story.”

Defense counsel twice argued for a motion to dismiss the case, claiming the state failed to provide evidence the boy intentionally and unlawfully started the fire, requisite elements for an arson charge. Those motions were denied. Roberts ruled the motions should have been granted.

“Even if the State arguably met its burden of proving the fire was willfully started using the appellant’s admission, it made no attempt to show that the fire was started unlawfully, i.e., without a legitimate, lawful purpose,” wrote Roberts. “While setting a fan on fire out of curiosity could hardly be construed as a legitimate purpose, the State made no effort to show that the action was unlawful and, in failing to do so, essentially rewrote the arson statute to remove the element of unlawfulness.”

“Under the State’s position, proof of arson would be satisfied by a defendant’s admission to starting a fire and proof of property damage in the vicinity. We find this argument lacking,” Roberts continued. “We agree with the general principles in the cases relied on by the State, but find the State’s interpretation of the cases overlooks some of the factual subtleties that ultimately render those cases distinguishable.”

The ruling, joined by concurring judges Susan Kelsey and Robert Benton, is not final until time expires for an appeal from the state.

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Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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