09.30.09

Supporting the Managing Arson Through Criminal History Act

Mr. Speaker, I rise in support of the Managing Arson Through Criminal History Act, the MATCH Act, and am very proud to join Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack in sponsoring this important legislation and who has led the charge on this for several years now. I want to congratulate you on your perseverance. This, I think, will be a very important and powerful tool in bringing arsonists to justice.

Our collaboration on this issue stems from a painful understanding of the devastation that arson can cause and has caused in both of our districts. In fact, as we debate this bill today, firefighters are still mopping up the last vestiges of the Station fire which has burned thousands and thousands of acres in the Angeles Forest in the past month and resulted in the tragic death of two firefighters. The fire was deliberately set, and the perpetrator is still at large. The bill before us today would create a nationwide registry of arsonists to help fire investigators find arsonists and prevent additional fires.

Because arsonists commit their crimes in secret, arson is among the most difficult of crimes to investigate. According to FBI statistics, only about 18 percent of arsons from 2008 have been ``cleared'' by an arrest. In the wake of a fire, investigators are faced with the daunting challenge of piecing together evidence from a scorched tract of land or a house. The Station fire, for example, is a 250-square-mile crime scene. Investigators have isolated where they believe the blaze originated, but there have been no arrests thus far, despite the offer of a $150,000 reward.

I know from firsthand experience the difficulty of an arson investigation. When I was an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I prosecuted an individual who started fires in the San Bernardino Forest. The arsonist followed a pattern. He used a distinct incendiary device made from a cigarette with matches taped around it. He would drive through the forest and throw the cigarette with the matches taped around it into the brush. The cigarette would burn down to the matches, ignite the matches, which would ignite the brush. The cigarette was basically like a slow fuse. By the time the brush caught on fire, he was far away from the point of origin of the fire.

Catching someone like that who doesn't have a traditional motive to set a fire or commit a crime is extremely challenging. Eventually, using video surveillance, law enforcement made an arrest.

We discovered in the course of the investigation that the suspect had a history of setting fires using the same distinct incendiary device made from a cigarette with matches taped around it. We didn't discover that information in an electronic database or even in the suspect's criminal record. The information was eventually found before the trial, stored in a box in his former parole officer's basement.

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 of their modus operandi. We might have been able to stop him before he set several of the later fires. Keeping records in your basement is not a sound investigative law enforcement strategy. The national arsonist registry created by the MATCH Act is.

The MATCH Act would create a national registry of arsonists that is similar but more extensive than what three States have right now. Currently, three States, including California, maintain such registries, but they are very limited. Arsonists can and do cross State lines to start fires. They don't necessarily contain updated information about the arsonist's current address, their place of employment, where they go to school and a myriad of other pieces of information that could be useful to investigators.

Under the MATCH Act, a convicted arsonist would be required to registerwith the State in which they reside and provide updated biographical information, along with a photograph and information on the cars that they own. No information in this registry would be publicly available. The information would only be accessible to law enforcement and fire investigators.

Last year, the Congressional Budget Office scored the cost of implementing the act at $17 million over 5 years, that is, if we fully fund a small authorization to offset the costs to States in setting up the program. Given the millions and millions we spend fighting wildfires and the billions, literally billions, in property damage due to arson, this is a reasonable investment to save lives in the future.

The House passed this legislation overwhelmingly in 2007, but unfortunately it was never enacted. It didn't clear the Senate. As my constituents can attest, though, the problem of arson is not going away. And so we press on for this bill that will assist investigators and, we hope, prevent arson fires in the future.

I urge my colleagues to support the bill and reserve the balance of my time.