The Law and Penalties for Arson Offences in NSW

By Sahar Adatia and Jimmy Singh.


There’s no denying that absolutely no one enjoys getting caught by a speed camera, let alone copping the hefty fine that comes with it. Other than being a real downer to your wallet, speeding also puts people’s lives at risk, sometimes even killing them.

So, it’s probably a good idea to obey the law rather than drive recklessly.

Or so you’d think.

For one particular South Australian man, the response was a little different – and a whole lot of defiance.

It involved an impudent strategy that saw him allegedly burning down the speed camera that caught him out in a bizarre method, namely by setting his underpants on fire. As you do.

On 15 November 2018, in a move that could be described as taking the old adage “Liar, liar, pants on fire” a little too literally, a man was arrested and charged for two counts of arson after he allegedly set fire to a speed camera in Adelaide, using his undies as his fuel of choice.

He was also allegedly caught returning to the scene to reignite the same camera merely three hours later.

In Brief: The Bare Details of the Blaze

At about 12:20am on Thursday morning, the 40-year-old Reynella man allegedly smashed and set alight the speed camera using his underwear at the intersection of Anzac Highway and Greenhill Road at Wayville.

The fire was swiftly extinguished, however, according to police, patrols arrived too late to capture the culprit, who drove away from the scene.

Following this, emergency services were called to return to the location at about 3:45am when the man allegedly made his second attempt to set the camera on fire. This effort involved dousing his underwear in an accelerant before setting the fixed camera alight.

It was at this point that the man was arrested.

“A suspect was arrested at the scene,” Senior Constable Rebecca Stokes said.

“It was the second time, we’ll be alleging, that he tried to set fire to the same camera.”

Meanwhile, speaking to ABC Adelaide, a local police officer spoke of the discovery of the burnt underpants.

“We have what we understand are burnt-up jocks, yes jocks, underwear, at the bottom and the fire has licked up the pillar on all four sides.”

He also added that the glass of the camera had been shattered, and that crime scene investigators had seized the suspect’s vehicle for forensic testing.

The Bottom Line for Burnt Underpants Man

Upon his second attempt to set the speed camera alight, the Adelaide man was arrested and charged with two counts of arson.

He was also refused police bail.

A witness filmed the blaze with her phone, during which she and her friend called authorities to warn them of the situation.

“It was just so random, but also it is a speed camera so I also thought maybe someone got a ticket, you know, got angry,” the witness, Maria, said.

“That’s not the smartest thing to do.”

A Bad Streak: Speed Camera Out of Action and Not the First to be Attacked

The attacked camera is one of Adelaide’s most lucrative speed cameras and rakes in more than a million dollars a year in government revenue.

In the aftermath of the incident, however, it is now out of action.

Speaking of the damage, South Australian Police Commander Grant Stevens said, “It puts the camera out of action and we put strategies in place to ensure we have a road safety enforcement capability around that damaged camera.”

The transport department is yet to determine when it will be back up and running.

Indeed, this is not the first occasion in which a speed camera has been targeted for an attack. In 2014, a man confessed to damaging several speed cameras, during which it is alleged he held a crossbow that he was threatening to fire at police.

In August this year, an arsonist torched a speed camera in Adelaide’s west. According to investigators, the man poured petrol next to the base of a fixed speed camera on Tapleys Hill Road at West Beach, then set it alight. The flames scorched the ground and the pole of the camera. Many locals living in the area were angered by the attack.

Understanding Arson and the Element of Intent

According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, arson is understood as “the act of intentionally and maliciously destroying or damaging property through the use of fire”. Within this definition, four elements exist:

  • The lighting of fire – fire being the fundamental component of arson;
  • Intention or wilfulness – for arson to occur there must be an intention or wilfulness to do it. This does not include fires that are started by natural causes or accidents;
  • Malice – for arson to occur, there must be a malice. This does not include fires started intentionally with positive or legitimate intent; and
  • Property – for arson to have occurred, there must be some kind of property or object that is burned.

The constituent of intent is crucial to the characterisation of arson.

There are many reasons why people deliberately light fires, some being for legitimate and legal purposes.

For example, some people may light fires as prescribed burning conducted in a controlled manner for fuel and land management purposes.

Another example would be a fire lit at a camp site in an approved area where there are no fire bans in place. In such cases, the fire is intentionally lit, however does not comprise arson as the intention to cause damage or harm is not apparent and thus there is no breach of the law.

The Law and Penalties for Arson Offences in NSW

A person who is guilty of intentionally causing and spreading a fire to vegetation on public land or someone else’s land will face a criminal conviction and penalty of up to 21-years imprisonment in NSW pursuant to section 203E of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW).

This means that you can only be guilty of the offence of arson in NSW if:

  • You caused the fire intentionally; and
  • At the time of causing the fire, you realised the possibility of it spreading to vegetation on public or someone else’s land, but you continued in causing the fire anyway.

‘Causing a fire’ includes lighting a fire, maintaining a fire or failing to contain it (unless if it was lit by someone else or if the fire was beyond control).

‘Spreading” the fire means “spread of a fire beyond the capacity of the person who causes the fire to extinguish it.”

A person charged with this offence will be not guilty if he/she is a firefighter or where he/she was acting under directions of a firefighter in circumstances he/she caused the fire in the course of a bushfire fighting (or hazard reduction) operation.

The Law also says that if the police are unable to prove the above offence (due to not being able to prove each of the above two mentioned elements of the charge), then he/she can instead end up facing a charge under section 100(1) of the Rural Fires Act 1997 (NSW).

A person guilty of section 100(1) of the Rural Fires Act 1998 (NSW), being the offence of setting or causing a fire to someone else’s land/property or public land or property will face a criminal conviction and penalty of up to 5-years imprisonment.

The main difference between this charge and the earlier charge we have discussed in this blog is that the section 100(1) of the Rural Fires Act 1997 (NSW) offence prohibits the setting fire of property, not just land.

There are other types of arson offences under the Rural Fires Act 1997 (NSW) which include the following.

A person who is the owner or occupier of a land is prohibited from permitting a fire to escape from that land in circumstances where it will cause or likely to cause injury or damage to the person, or someone else’s property or land (or public property or land). This offence carries a penalty of 5-years imprisonment.

This offence will carry a heavier penalty of up to 7-years imprisonment if the above occurs in circumstances he/she knew that there was a total fire ban in force at the time.

A person will face a penalty of up to 12-months imprisonment if he/she, without lawful authority, leaves a fire (even if temporarily) that he/she lit or used in the open air without thoroughly extinguishing it first.

It is a defence to this if the person had lit the fire in open air for the purposes of cooking, heating, preparing meals or boiling water if he/she leaves the fire without extinguishing it in circumstances the fire continues to be used by someone else.

For a more thorough outline on this, see our previous blog on ‘The Law, Penalties and Defences for Intentionally or Recklessly Destroy or Damage Property in NSW’.

The Law on Destroying or Damaging Property in NSW

It’s also a criminal offence in NSW to damage or destroy someone else’s property if:

  • You damaged or destroyed a property; and
  • That property belonged to someone else (even if it was partly owned by you and someone else); and
  • At that time, you intended to damage or destroy it, or you realised the possibility of it being damaged or destroyed but continued in your conduct that caused it anyway.

Anyone guilty of a destroy or damage property charge will face penalties ranging from 1-year imprisonment to 12-years imprisonment pursuant to section 195 of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW).

Any questions arising from this blog?

Our team are available 24/7 and attend all courts.

We have criminal lawyers in Newcastle, Wollongong, and Penrith.

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