Mason v. Super. Ct.Annotate this Case
In 2012, petitioner Byron Mason went with his wife, his two children, his dog, and friends to the Shirttail Canyon swimming hole in Foresthill for a party. It was fire season, and numerous fires had started in the surrounding area. Mason lit and threw an aerial firework into the middle of the swimming hole where it initially floated, then exploded, throwing flares in all directions and up in the air. A spark landed on a dry, grassy edge of the cliff about 27 feet above the surface of the pool and ignited some brush. The fire spread quickly and soon expanded beyond control. By the time a fire suppression crew arrived the fire had burned some 500 acres. A firefighter suffered a fracture of his right forearm when a large boulder hit his arm. In all, 2,650 acres of grassland and forest were destroyed. Mason tearfully confessed to law enforcement. Mason was initially charged by complaint with arson, and the lesser offense of unlawfully causing a fire. The arson charges were dismissed at a preliminary hearing and Mason was held to answer on the lesser offense. The People did not file an information in the Superior Court; instead they convened a grand jury and obtained an indictment charging Mason with arson that caused great bodily injury and the burning of an inhabited structure. The grand jury was instructed with a modified version of the standard CALCRIM instructions for an arson that causes great bodily injury and for an arson that causes an inhabited structure to burn. The trial court denied Mason’s motion to set aside the indictment. Mason challenged a modification to the standard instruction, and the grand jury evidence and procedures, claiming in part that the jury should have been instructed on the lesser offense of unlawful burning, and that an indictment does not lie where a complaint is not dismissed and the defendant is held to answer on another charge. He argued that arson required an intent to burn a property, that when he set off the firework he was on an outing with his wife and children to a swimming hole, into which the firework was thrown and did not intend to cause a forest and grassland fire. He claimed that his conduct amounted at most to the lesser offense of unlawfully causing a fire. The Court of Appeal concluded this case turned on the culpable state for arson. Because the Court followed the California Supreme Court’s interpretation of “causes to be burned,” it affirmed the indictment on the ground the grand jury proceedings showed there was probable cause to believe that the natural and highly probable consequence of the act of igniting and throwing a large, unlawful, aerial firework into the swimming hole in the middle of a forest and grassland in extreme fire conditions would be the burning of the forest land.