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Here’s a law you probably don’t know about: People convicted of arson in California must be registered with their local law enforcement agency for life. When they change addresses, they’re required to update their contact information with police.
The California Legislature created the law in 1984 to give arson investigators an extra tool to look for repeat offenders. When investigators come across a suspicious fire, they can check a database and find out whether any arsonists are living in the area who could be suspects.
The registry is a tool, but it’s unclear whether the San Diego Police Department’s database is accurate. Nobody has checked for years, even though a previous study showed low compliance.
The Metro Arson Task Force manages San Diego’s arson registry and Chris Everett is one of its two detectives. Realizing the city’s data has not been updated for several years, Everett started inspecting every registration record in December. Of the seven arsonists checked so far, three had left the city and one was deceased, he said.
So how does this sample describe compliance in San Diego, where 71 arsonists were registered at last count?
“It’s really too early for me to say,” Everett said, “but there is definitely a great likelihood that there are people in this city who have not registered.”
In 1998, the Metro Arson Task Force reported the accuracy of San Diego’s arson registry by comparing its data to a statewide list managed by the California Department of Justice. The study, published in California Fire-Arson Investigator Magazine, said fewer than half of 97 arsonists registered to live in the San Diego were actually living at their listed address.
Unlike registered sex offenders, the information about arsonists is not available to the public. It’s only collected by law enforcement for investigative purposes. However, violating the registration law is a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of one year in jail. For some people, a conviction could also revoke their parole or probation.
Others update registries more frequently than the city. The San Diego Sheriff’s Department does it every year through its licensing division. It has 52 arsonists registered throughout its jurisdiction.
Blanca Pelowitz, the department’s licensing manager, said the Sheriff’s registry is usually updated each fall when deputies start preparing for the wildfire season. That’s when deputies want the information ready, just in case. Pelowitz said it appears that most cases of noncompliance happen when people move outside the Sheriff’s jurisdiction and don’t notify the department. It’s not that people are registering false addresses, she said.
Among crimes that require registration — sex, gang and drug crimes — the attention given to arson is cyclical, law enforcement authorities said. People become more interested in arson registration when a high-profile case can’t be solved or someone dies in a suspicious fire. In fact, the Station Fire outside Los Angeles last fall renewed motivation in Congress for a national arson registry. The bill proposed by California lawmakers has already passed the House and is waiting to be addressed in a Senate committee. It was modeled after the Californian registry system.
Everett supports the national registry, despite his concern about San Diego’s data, because the local information still helped at least one case. In April last year, firefighters responded to a series of fires throughout North Park in two days. Everett said the registry allowed him to check each arsonist living in the area and clear them as possible suspects.
Patrick Johnston was the San Joaquin Assemblyman who drafted the 1984 legislation that created California’s arson registry. Apart from giving law enforcement a tool to investigate fires, he said the registry is supposed to be a deterrent to commit arson.
“The system should pay sufficient attention to the arson registry so it’s reasonably up-to-date, and prosecutors in courts should back up police by adding jail time to people who fail to register,” Johnston said.
“It’s understandable if law enforcement have a big job with limited resources. Hopefully arson registration factors in the mix of funding priorities because so many fires happen annually in California,” he added.
Since 2004, the San Diego City Attorney’s Office, which handles misdemeanors, has received eight arson registration cases from San Diego police. Six resulted in charges and convictions.
— KEEGAN KYLE