The California Court of Appeals has ruled that a criminal convicted of setting a wildland fire cannot be required to pay restitution to responding fire departments for their response costs as part of his sentence, because the fire departments are not the victims of the crime. The case involved Jorge Flores, who was convicted last year of setting a wildland fire in Ventura County in 2021.
Flores was sentenced to four years in prison and ordered to pay restitution to the owner of the property that was damaged, the Ventura County Fire Protection District ($13,548.06) and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) ($22,861.75). He appealed the restitution order claiming that responding agencies are ineligible for restitution because they are not the victims of a crime.
Quoting from the Court of Appeals decision:
- The court must order restitution in a criminal case to “a victim of crime who incurs an economic loss as a result of the commission of a crime.”
- A “victim” includes a “government, governmental subdivision, agency, or instrumentality . . . when that entity is a direct victim of a crime.”
- But a government agency is not entitled to restitution for the costs of its response to a crime committed against another.
The court acknowledged that California law allows a fire department to recover costs from the person responsible for starting a wildland fire. However, that law cannot be used to justify an order of restitution as part of a criminal sentencing. In other words, the fire department would have to sue the arsonist separately in civil court to recoup its response costs.
The requirement that Flores pay restitution to the property owners was not in question in the case. Here is a copy of the decision: