Jersey City, New Jersey – Lawyering is often about finding a key word in a statute and nitpicking its definition or application to a particular circumstance. But sometimes, maybe often, a word is just a word and no amount of creative lawyering or theories will change the plain meaning of a word. This was illustrated recently by the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division’s decision in State v. Kyle Brown.
Mr. Brown was indicted for aggravated arson, NJSA 2C:17-1a(1) and 2C:17-1a(3), arson, NJSA 2C:17-1b(1), (2), (3) or (5), fourth-degree arson, NJSA 2C:17-1c(2), risking widespread injury or damage, NJSA 2C:17-2a(1) and NJSA 2C:17-2(c) and 17-2d(2) based on a factual allegation that he poured gasoline on and in his car before setting it on fire while is sat parked in a mostly-vacant parking lot outside the residential dorms at Rutgers University. Several counts of the indictment were dismissed pre-trial and several were dismissed post-trial before the jury verdict, but he was convicted of arson and risking widespread injury by the jury. On appeal, Mr. Brown argued he should not be convicted because there was insufficient evidence presented that he caused an explosion relying on the theory that the fireball and loud boom resulting from the fire was not an explosion, and no expert testified there was an explosion.
The Appellate Division provided a legal and logical explanation of why it does not take an expert to determine what an explosion is nor is there any legal wrangling or wordsmithing that would lead to the conclusion that a fireball and loud boom resulting from a car doused in gasoline being set on fire is an explosion. It was a creative argument by Mr. Brown’s lawyers, but ultimately, sometimes, common sense and common definitions prevail.
If you set a car on fire and it explodes, it is an explosion according to the dictionary and the law.
Another interesting takeaway that was not evaluated is that the risk of causing widespread damage or injury can be satisfied even when there are few people, cars or other property in the immediate vicinity. Perhaps there could be a factual scenario where such an event is remote enough not to risk widespread injury or damage, but it seems fairly certain that the parking lot of a college residential dorm is not such a place.