(EDIT) Since publishing this piece I have learned that the Smith’s hired their attorney in August. From my Twitter post: Attorney for the Smith’s, @reichellaw, confirms to @nytimes that Travis and David’s phones and homes were searched in August. It was then that they hired Reichel. “My clients and I have literally just sat and waited for this day to come,” Mr. Reichel said.
David Smith and son, Travis Smith, were arrested on Wednesday, December 8, in connection with the Caldor Fire. The El Dorado County District Attorney released the following statement:
A father and son are now under arrest, accused of reckless arson in connection with the Caldor Fire, the massive wildfire that burned more than 200,000 acres in El Dorado and Amador Counties. David Scott Smith, 66, and Travis Shane Smith, 32, were arrested pursuant to Ramey warrants. A Ramey warrant is a warrant that is issued before criminal charges are filed. The two men are accused of violating section 452 of the California Penal Code, commonly referred to as “reckless arson,” which caused inhabited properties to burn and resulted in great bodily injury to multiple victims. The El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office worked together with the USDA Forest Service, Cal Fire, the California Department of Justice and the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Crime Lab to investigate the cause of the Caldor Fire.El Dorado District Attorney, December 8, 2021
So let’s dig into what happened yesterday and what these accusations mean. First, what exactly is a Ramey warrant? Generally speaking, an arrest warrant is required to make an arrest inside a private home or residence, or to make an arrest for a misdemeanor that occurred outside the arresting officer’s presence, or for offenses not committed within the arresting officer’s jurisdiction. Usually, the arresting agency will file charges and a judge will issue the arrest warrant.
In some cases, the arresting agency may obtain a warrant prior to filling charges. This is called a Ramey warrant and it is granted by a judge after reviewing probable cause. A Ramey warrant is usually sought due to issues with timing. For example, it may be after office hours or a weekend and the police don’t want to wait for the district attorney’s office to file charges. There could be concerns the suspect may be tipped off about an impending arrest and then be able to hide evidence. There could also be a reason police believe important evidence will be discovered through the quick questioning of a suspect. We do know both David and Travis were arrested on a weekday during standard business hours. This suggests the arresting agency had reason to believe a quick arrest (and possibly questioning) would somehow strengthen the case of the DA.
It’s important to note that because the Smiths were arrested with a Ramey warrant, both men are currently behind bars on probable cause and technically have not yet been charged. Under California law they must be brought before a judge within 48 hours and charged, otherwise they must be released. Notice above the DA states the two men are “accused of violating section 452” and not “charged with violating section 452.” While this suggests the DA expects to charge the two men with 452, we can’t be sure until the charges are actually filed. Still, let’s take a look at what is California Penal Code Section 452.
452 is California law which defines “reckless burning” and makes it a crime for a person to recklessly set fire to or burn any structure, forest land, or property. “Reckless” is a higher standard then “negligence” or other form of “accident.” A person acts recklessly if:
- he is aware that his actions could present a substantial and unjustifiable risk of causing a fire,
- he ignores that risk, and
- doing so is a gross deviation from how a reasonable person would act in the same situation.
In other words, a true “accident” like forgetting to shut off a stove before leaving for the day wouldn’t make a person guilty of reckless burning.
In this case, according to jail rosters, both men are being held under the suspicion of violating 452(a). The “(a)” reviews to the subset of the code which applies to causing “great bodily harm.” This would likely be in reference to the firefighter who suffered burns over 20% of his body. 452 can be charged as a felony or misdemeanor and in this case both men are expected to be receive the charges as felonies. Violating 452(a) is punishable by up to 6 years in prison (max) or simple fines (min).
There are a lot of rumors flying around about what exactly the Smiths were allegedly doing which recklessly caused the fire. Facebook and Twitter are rife with unsubstantiated claims, and some news outlets are already publishing quotes by unnamed sources who claim to have seen the father and son actually start the fire. The rumors range from illegally shooting guns, illegally starting a campfire, playing with fireworks, riding malfunctioning dune buggies which were throwing off sparks, and so on. Until the charges are actually filed and the DA releases the indictment, we are unlikely to know exactly what the Smiths are being accused of.
David and Travis Smith have hired attorney Mark Reichel. In several interviews yesterday, Reichel admitted the Smiths were in the area of the Caldor Fire’s origin, just to the Northeast of Omo Ranch. However, he refused to respond to questions about what the Smiths were doing in the area. He claims the Smiths’ had nothing to do with starting the fire and actually reported seeing flames. According to Reichel, Travis Smith called 911 “several times” to report the fire because the call was “repeatedly dropping.” Reichel claims both father and son then went to warn nearby campers of the approaching blaze.
Travis Smith, 32, was arrested at 2401 Panther Place in Roseville, CA. The address is that of the West Park High School. David Smith, 66, was arrested at 7550 Reese Road in Sacramento, CA. The address is that of a Pepsi bottling plant. Both men were booked into the El Dorado County Jail by 4:00 p.m. yesterday and are each being held on a $1 million bond. Arraignment is expect tomorrow and we may hear of official charges being filed by the DA today.
More on who the Smiths are in the next post.