It's been over a month and 160,000 acres since flames began a devastating push through Los Angeles County. One of the most destructive wildfires in the history of California, the Station Fire, now sits just below full containment.
And the cost has been high. In addition to destroyed homes and displaced residents, two firefighters lost their lives fighting the blaze. Following forensic confirmation of arson, police have classified both deaths as homicides.
An investigation is currently underway.
In June of this year, Raymond Oyler was sentenced to death for setting a 2006 fire in the San Jacinto Mountains, which eventually claimed the lives of five fireman, 34 homes and 41,000 acres.
Californians are all too cognizant of the threat posed by wildfires. In 2007, California lawmakers introduced the Managing Arson Through Criminal History Act (MATCH Act). Though passing in the U.S. House of Representatives, the act stalled in Senate.
In March 26th of this year, the bill was reintroduced as House Resolution 1727. On September 9th, as the Station Fire continued to rage, Representatives Mary Bono Mack and Adam Schiff urged congress to hasten passage of the bill, which would establish a national criminal arsonist registry.
If passed, the law would require individuals convicted of arson to register for five years following a single offense, 10 years for two offenses, and for life if there are three or more.
As it stands in the submitted bill, registry information would include:
- name and any aliases
- social security number
- most recent address
- physical description
- description of offense
- fingerprints and palm prints
- photocopy of a valid license or identification card
There is also a provision for "any other information required by the Attorney General," which could leave the door open for future additions.
Proponents hope that the bill will provide some measure of defense against repeat arsonists. Potentially, it could expedite the process of tracking down potential suspects and sharing information across state lines.
For example, if a convicted arsonist left one state and began setting similar fires in another, law enforcement officers in the second state could use the national database to look for patterns - resulting in more efficient and successful investigations.
Unlike sex offender registries, the MATCH Act would not allow public access to arson records.
The bill has not resulted in strong opposition, though there is some concern about cost. With state budgets cut, some arson investigation units question how such an initiative might be undertaken without significant funding. Under the Act, states would get increased federal funding, but would still be required to maintain their own registries. Failure to do so would result in up to 10 percent in funding cuts.
Proponents of the MATCH Act assert that those who have served their time need not worry about privacy concerns because the information would only be available to law enforcement agents and fire investigators. In reality though, anytime data is being collected, it is important to fully contemplate the privacy implications.
The future of the MATCH Act remains unclear. Although the recent fires have brought this issue to the forefront of national attention, many in Congress are loathe to place additional burdens on state governments given recent state budgetary challenges.
Regardless of what happens with the MATCH Act though, it is clear that there is strong support for the prosecution and prevention of arson. Accordingly, it is important that those under investigation for such crimes take care to protect their rights and interests. For more information, speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney.