Arson and Restitution

Convicted Arsonist Must Pay Restitution

Post 4731

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A fire at a residential property destroyed several structures and made nearly all of the owner’s personal property unsalvageable. M.W. pleaded guilty to first degree reckless burning for his role in starting the fire. The trial court ordered M.W. to pay over $1 million in restitution.

In State Of Washington v. M.W., No. 85908-1-I, Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 1 (January 29, 2024) the Court of Appeals resolved the issues.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

According to the affidavit of probable cause, on July 5, 2021, a fire occurred in Battle Ground, WA, involving a structure locally known as the “Old Cherry Grove Church,” two dwellings, and a storage structure, all located on the same property. The property is owned by Steven Slocum. The damage resulted in a total loss of the structures and their contents.

Within two months after the fire, the investigating officer obtained recorded verbal and handwritten statements from five juveniles, including M.W., who came forward and admitted involvement in throwing a “mortar type firework” at Slocum’s property.

The State charged M.W. with first degree arson. On January 5, 2022, the State charged M.W. by amended information with first degree reckless burning, to which M.W. pleaded guilty on the same day. M.W.’s statement on plea of guilty. M.W. agreed to pay restitution in full to all victims on charged counts, including dismissed counts and causes.

The trial court found that there was good cause to continue the hearing because there appeared to be a potentially complete loss of property and because of Slocum’s emotional state. The court entered an order extending the restitution deadline to August 4, 2022 and a separate order setting a contested restitution hearing for August 3, 2022.

At the restitution hearing on September 28, 2022, the trial court took testimony from Slocum and admitted exhibits into the record. Slocum testified his property included a former church and his home, a parsonage house, and three separate buildings for classrooms, and carports. Slocum purchased the property because it had ample storage space, he was “kind of a hoarder,” he had “a lot of stuff,” and “this was an ideal place to have it.” Slocum decorated the church with “a lot of antiques” and completed “repairs and upgrades.” His collection included “[a] lot of phonographs, old victrolas and Edison cylinder players and musical- musical things.” Slocum also bought a “couple of pianos, player pianos and a lot of slot machines.” Slocum kept several items of family sentimental value in his home, such as furniture pieces, photographs, his mother’s jewelry box and purse, his father’s TV shop’s test equipment, and an Aga cookstove.

Slocum and his nephew were in the back of the church on July 5, 2021, when the fire started. Slocum called 911 and was unable to extinguish the fire using a fire extinguisher. While on the phone with emergency dispatchers, he started taking pictures. The court admitted several photographs into evidence, including ones Slocum took during the fire and after the fire documenting the damage. State Farm prepared an estimate to rebuild the structures for $999,354.74. State Farm paid $569,255.85 for the damage to the buildings and Geico paid $7,000.00 for the truck. The remaining vehicles were not covered by insurance.

Courts in other contexts have construed “good cause” to require a showing of some external impediment that did not result from a self-created hardship that would prevent a party from complying with statutory requirements.

The fact that he could not salvage anything from his destroyed home also speaks to the difficulty in cataloging and estimating his personal property losses within 180 days after the disposition hearing. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding there was good cause to extend time for the restitution hearing.

M.W. argued there was insufficient evidence of the value of the items ordered as restitution. Restitution must be limited to easily ascertainable damages for, relevant here, injury to or loss of property. Where the offender has contractually undertaken to pay restitution pursuant to a plea agreement, the offender is bound by the terms of the agreement.

When disputed, the facts supporting a restitution award must be proved by a preponderance of the evidence. Evidence supporting restitution is sufficient if it affords a reasonable basis for estimating loss and does not subject the trier of fact to mere speculation or conjecture.

M.W. argues for the first time in his reply brief that State Farm’s estimate does not make sense but at another point, it estimated loss as $999,354.74 and indicated it issued him a check for $569,255.85. The Court of Appeals noted that this argument appears to misread the State Farm documents, which separate the repair costs for the church structure and the dwelling structure, and plainly indicate a replacement cost of $999,354.74 for the two.

Given the extensive nature of the personal property loss, the amount for which Slocum had insured it provided a reasonable basis for estimating that he had suffered loss in at least that amount.

ZALMA OPINION

Arson is an evil act where innocent people and firefighters are injured or die. Mr. Slocum and his nephew were in the building at the time the fire was set and deserved the punishment he got and if he did not go to jail he will spend the rest of his young life earning the money needed to pay the restitution.

(c) 2024 Barry Zalma & ClaimSchool, Inc.

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About Barry Zalma

An insurance coverage and claims handling author, consultant and expert witness with more than 48 years of practical and court room experience.
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