April 14th, 2009
10:09 PM ET

Why we need a national arsonist registry

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/CRIME/03/23/pa.arson.arrest/art.arson.pa.stringer.jpg caption="Coatesville, Pennsylvania has recorded more than 20 arson cases in 2009."]

Rep. Adam Schiff

Last week, I went for a mountain bike ride in the Verdugo Mountains, right above Stough Canyon near my home in Burbank, California. It was beautiful, but it was plain that fire season would soon be with us. I have introduced legislation along with Rep. Mary Bono to create a registry of arsonists and try to crack down on some of the arson fires that plague our region and country.

In the news just this week, there have been reports that at least one of the wildfires burning in Oklahoma may have been set by an arsonist. This is just the latest example of the need for such a registry to help catch arsonists and prevent them from striking again. The MATCH Act would create a national registry and require convicted arsonists to report where they live, work and go to school, and the database would include fingerprints, a photograph, vehicle information and other information on the arsonist. The information would only be made available to law enforcement agencies and other relevant personnel and not the general public.

When arson has occurred, it is critical to quickly find the individual involved in order to prevent future acts of arson and prosecute the individual responsible. This is often extremely difficult, because most arsonists do not have traditional motives. But arsonists are often repeat offenders and frequently they will use the same trademark tools – such as a unique incendiary device, a manner of starting a fire, or similar targets, such as houses of worship, or auto dealerships. In addition to putting law enforcement on notice, this also lets the convicted arsonists know that they can't hide from law enforcement for the purpose of committing another act of arson.

When I was a prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles in the late 1980's and early 1990's, I worked on cases related to arson, and I saw then the damage that arson can cause. One case in particular that I handled demonstrates how an arsonist registry would be of great benefit. In this case someone was setting a string of fires in the San Bernardino forest. The individual used a unique incendiary device that he could throw in the brush and drive off before the brush would ignite. The police couldn't catch the culprit in the act, but eventually succeeded at catching him by tracking him through video surveillance and a complex investigation.

The suspect was arrested and interviewed, and he admitted to setting the fires in a taped interview. However, the tape recording malfunctioned and the confession was lost, along with most of the case. As we pursued the investigation, we found a probation officer who had overseen the suspect many years earlier and who found the arsonist's records in his basement storage. The files on the suspect detailed that many years earlier he had set fires using the same incendiary device. When confronted with the evidence, the suspect pleaded guilty.

If we had a national arsonist registry at the time, we would have known of convicted arsonists who lived in the region. We would have known their modus operandi. We might have been able to prevent numerous fires. Keeping records in your basement is not a sound investigative law enforcement strategy – but a national arsonist registry is - and it is my hope that the MATCH Act may be part of the answer.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Crime & Punishment • Wildfires
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