Community Plays Key Role in Groundbreaking Hate Crimes Conviction: An Open Letter From FBI San Francisco
To our Northern California community:
Today was a landmark day in our battle against the rising tide of hate crimes in Northern California. At the federal courthouse in San Jose, Ole Hougen was sentenced to 6 years and 10 months in federal prison for committing a violent hate crime against a Black man in Santa Cruz. This is the first conviction and sentencing in the Northern District of California under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act – a federal law passed in 2009 to greatly expand the government’s ability to prosecute hate crimes.
Federal hate crimes are uniquely difficult to prove in a court of law. Unlike with other crimes, the FBI must uncover proof of the offender’s motive. To convict someone of a federal hate crime, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the offender targeted the victim because of the victim’s race, color, religion, sexual orientation, or other legally protected status. This case illustrates two of the most important ways that the community can help the FBI with our hate crimes investigations: coming forward as witnesses and reporting any bias-motivated attacks or threats to law enforcement.
Witness statements are often a key element in making a case. We understand people sometimes feel afraid to step forward as witnesses to a crime. However, in many instances, witnesses may observe key details or hear a violent offender make offensive or otherwise derogatory statements about a victim’s racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, or gender identity. An offender’s statements, whether written or spoken, can constitute some of the most powerful evidence of bias. This information can help law enforcement prove both the underlying attack and the offender’s motive or bias. The FBI can speak with witnesses in any language, and we will protect witnesses regardless of their immigration status or country of origin.
In this investigation, FBI special agents obtained evidence of several prior racially motivated crimes committed by Ole Hougen in other communities in California and beyond. FBI special agents located and interviewed the victims from these past crimes and facilitated their testimony at trial. This evidence was critical in proving that Hougen targeted the victim in Santa Cruz because of his race. While not every incident of discrimination or violence will necessarily lead to a federal conviction, they can help a jury understand a pattern of bias. Thanks to the brave reporting and trial testimony of members of our Northern California community, Ole Hougen was convicted of a federal hate crime by a jury of his peers and will now serve his sentence in federal prison.
The rise in hate crimes must be addressed by our entire community. The FBI is committed to continuing our critical work with local law enforcement partners to investigate these crimes, bring justice to the victims, and deter future acts of violence. However, we need your help. You can report information to the FBI in any language via tips.fbi.gov or by calling 415-553-7400. All tips may remain anonymous.
No one should be afraid to walk down the street or feel like they could be targeted by an act of violence based on how they look, where they are from, or what religion they practice. Let’s stand together and make it clear that acts of hate and racism have no place here.
Craig D. Fair
Special Agent in Charge
FBI San Francisco Division