Former Google Engineer Sentenced to 18 Months in Prison for Theft of Trade Secrets

We previously wrote about ex-Google engineer Anthony Levandowski, the former head of Google’s self-driving division, who was charged criminally for misappropriation of trade secrets prior to his departure from Google. Levandowski ultimately pleaded guilty to stealing a confidential document related to Google’s self-driving technology. Levandowski’s attorneys had requested that he be let off without any prison time, arguing that a year of home confinement, a fine, restitution, and community service would be sufficient punishment for his crime. The federal government had asked for a prison sentence of twenty-seven months. The judge chose not to accept either proposed sentence and instead handed down an 18-month prison sentence to Levandowski.

In handing down his sentence, US District Judge William Alsup said that a sentence without imprisonment would give “a green light to every future brilliant engineer to steal trade secrets.” Levandowski was originally charged with 33 counts of stealing trade secrets in connection with Levandowski’s downloading thousands of documents to his personal laptop before leaving Google to work on his own self-driving startup, Otto, which was later acquired by Uber in August 2016 for a reported $680 million. As part of his plea deal, Levandowski admitted to stealing one document called “Chauffeur TL weekly updates,” which tracked the progress of Google’s “Project Chauffeur” that later became Google’s self-driving division, Waymo. According to reports, Judge Alsup described the stolen document as a “competitor’s game plan” and called Levandowski’s theft the “biggest trade secret crime I have ever seen.” In exchange for pleading guilty to this one charge, the government agreed to drop the other charges against Levandowski.

In a bid to avoid jail time, Levandowski’s attorneys argued that home confinement was the appropriate punishment for his crime because he was at high risk of getting COVID-19 in prison as a result of having suffered two bouts of pneumonia in recent years. The judge ultimately rejected this argument but did grant some reprieve to Levandowski by ruling that he won’t have to report to prison to serve the sentence right away but instead can wait to serve his prison time until after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.

In addition to his prison time, Levandowski agreed to pay $756,499 in restitution to Waymo. He was originally ordered to pay Waymo $179 million but was not able to do so and subsequently filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. Levandowski must also pay a fine of $95,000.

Following the acquisition of his company by Uber, Levandowski went to work for Uber’s own self-driving division. Google ultimately filed a civil suit against Levandowski, Uber, and Lior Ron, another ex-Google employee who co-founded Otto with Levandowski. Only days into a trial which was expected to last at least three weeks, Google and Uber agreed to settle the lawsuit by giving Waymo a 0.34 percent equity stake in Uber. Given Uber’s valuation of $72 billion at the time, the settlement translated to a value of about $245 million. Uber also agreed to not incorporate Waymo’s confidential information into its hardware and software. Ron reportedly settled his own portion of the suit with Google for $9.7 million. Uber reportedly paid the settlement on Ron’s behalf and Ron is still an executive at Uber today.

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