Evidence in Accidental Fire Investigation

People often prefer proactive behavior to reactive behavior. With this in mind, if a fire investigator identifies that the cause of the fire was not incendiary, it is only logical that he applies the evidence he manages to adduce from the fire scene to set up preventive measures to curb the recurrence of the same incident. However, considerable controversies arise on the question of law. Does the law provide a fire investigator with a legal right to gather such evidence (of probable causes of a recurrence of a fire incident) for future examination? It is indispensable to realize that the rules of evidence clearly stipulate that, during the investigation of a particular incident, an investigator only has permission to collect evidence related to the immediate crime (Bates 67). Therefore, the law does not allow or provide for an overzealous investigator seeking to make future investigations to collect evidence at the scene. However, such an investigator may need to collect the evidence from the other appliances that are likely to cause fire just to prove his case may be in an insurance claim or a court of law.

Fire investigations yield different results depending on the proven cause of the fire. They can either show that it was an incendiary fire, which means that its setting was intentional. In such a case then this would be a criminal case of arson. Investigations would yield evidence such as trailers, which are the ignitable materials that an arsonist may use to start a fire, including newspapers, wires, and ropes among others (Quintiere 89). During the investigation of an incendiary fire, it may come to the notice of the investigators that there are some appliances nearby, which accelerated the spread or worsened the situation. In this case, then they have a legal right to collect these appliances as evidence for purposes of litigation. It is pertinent to note here that they can only collect the evidence for presentation in a court of law or any other judicial or insurance body, not with the express intention of carrying out future investigations on it. The other possible result of an investigation could be an ‘undetermined’ cause of the fire. In this case, the investigators can take part in those defective appliances suspected to be the cause of the fire so that they can carry out further investigations.

The result that this paper is focusing on is ‘accidental cause’, which means that the cause of the fire was not a malicious person seeking to either destroy evidence, cover another crime, get insurance, or any other illegal motivation. In such a case, there is no legal provision that expressly allows the investigator to acquire other probable causes of the fire for future investigations (Carroll 61). The required procedure is that when the investigator is approaching the scene he should have a rigid set of instructions to guide his investigations. Consequently, if he/she discovers in the course of an investigation that the cause of the fire was a defective appliance and that there are other defective appliances nearby, which may default and start fires, it is not part of his duty or right to confiscate such materials. However, he can seek permission from the authorities as, an investigation department, to launch an independent investigation to have the jurisdiction to confiscate these devices as ‘hazards to the society’ because they create a risk of fires starting any time. The reasons for these are simple, in law, ‘taking’ that evidence without an authorized warrant amounts to a crime reason being that it is another person’s property. Therefore, to avoid liability in civil and maybe even criminal law, an investigator should not exercise his / her discretion over such an issue.

However, in all these, one could relate the other defective devices to the current fire. In that case, the investigator should follow procedure and identify it as such, collect it by the evidence rules so that it is admissible in a court of law, and remove it from the scene for further investigations in the respective laboratories and other processing zones. The investigator should also ensure that he/she documents all other physical evidence at the scene. At this point of releasing the scene, the investigator should “ensure that he /she takes care of the legal, health, and safety requirements and that he/she conveys these to the people receiving the scene, as well as to safety agencies” (Bates 23). Such caution mitigates future accidents, incidents and injuries, which may impose liability on the negligent investigator. Next, this paper discusses, in brief, the procedure for the identification, collection, and removal of this evidence.

At the end of an investigation, the investigator should check to ensure that all the relevant evidence is inventoried and in safe storage. The investigator can then engage his/her team in a discussion of the initial / preliminary findings on the scene. This exercise contextualizes the fire incident (Carroll 99). With the general picture of the original scene in mind, they can then discuss the immediate results of the investigation, in terms of forensic reports, responses from witnesses and suspects’ interviews, and criminal records of those involved. After that, the investigator can hand over the scene to law enforcement agencies or whoever else it to assume jurisdiction over it. The other legal considerations that an investigator should have in mind include deciding which party has jurisdiction over the scene after investigations are complete. At this point, all the evidence captured is either in the form of a documented format (pictures and questionnaires) or sealed in plastic bags for further investigations of the scene. At times, the investigator can better analyze the information that he / she collects at the scene of the fire by studying the information contained in databases and making comparisons, from which to make inferences. This is because these databases contain a lot of information that other fire investigators have keyed. This can be a useful tool for similar fires. It saves on time and finances. Some of these databases include the “Arson and Explosives National Repository (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Fitness)” (Quintiere 72) and the National Fire Incident Reporting System (The United States Fire Administration) among others. These can come in handy especially where the authorities require proof of the validity of the investigation results. In such a situation, an investigator can give records of similar findings from these databases, therefore, proving that his / her proposed theory is accurate.

There is not a statute that explicitly provides investigators with the duty or right to acquire related evidence from the scene of a fire when such evidence is not primary to the investigation and the investigator only intends to prevent another fire. This is because the property does not belong to the investigator, and only the owner has the capacity to exercise certain rights over it. If an investigator goes ahead and acquires such evidence without permission or backing from his / her authorities, he/ she will be liable. However, part of the investigation process requires that an investigator remove evidence from the scene to avoid tampering or destruction. Under these circumstances, one can rightfully take the defective devices for further investigation as part of the procedural process. However, if an investigator simply feels that the other defective devices can cause another fire, he / she should conduct separate research and make proposals for the removal of those dangerous devices by the relevant authorities.

Works Cited

Bates, Edward. Elements of Fire and Arson Investigation. Santa Cruz, CA: Davis Publishing Company, 1975.

Carroll, John. Physical and Technical Aspects of Fire and Arson Investigation. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher, 2004.

Quintiere, James. Principles of Fire Behavior. Albany, New York: Delmar Publishers, 1997.

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