Anthony Levandowski, one of the founding members of Google’s self-driving car program and a former Uber executive, was sentenced to 18 months in prison and ordered to pay restitution after pleading guilty to one count of stealing self-driving car trade secrets from Google. This sentencing comes after years of civil and criminal matters relating to this lucrative technology.
In 2009, Levandowski co-founded Google’s self-driving car program now known as Waymo. In 2016, he resigned and founded his own business, Ottomotto, which was acquired by Uber that same year. In 2017, Google filed suit against Uber accusing Levandowski of downloading confidential Google files detailing its driverless program’s goals, metrics, and challenges onto a personal hard drive. That same year, Levandowski was fired from Uber for not complying with an internal investigation regarding the Google lawsuit. In 2018, Uber and Google settled their civil suit. The civil suit sparked a criminal investigation into Levandowski which resulted in a 33-count grand jury indictment in August 2019. Originally, Levandowski pled not guilty, but changed his plea in March, agreeing to plead guilty to one count of trade secret theft. The remaining 32 counts will be dropped. In determining Levandowski’s sentence, U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of California William Alsup considered the “massive” billion dollar scale of the crime and ordered prison time in order to deter similar crimes by others.
This case demonstrates that civil and criminal proceedings can not only exist in parallel but can spur further investigation and overlapping discovery. Further, Levandowski’s prosecution is a reminder that trade secrets theft can carry both civil and criminal liability, and that victims of such conduct can pursue both avenues for redress, including in particular mandatory restitution in the criminal arena.
This sentencing also comes at a time that tech giants such Uber, Google, and Twitter announced that they will allow their employees to work from home until at least July 2021 and as efforts to protect trade secrets from international threats have increased. Companies big and small will continue to face emerging threats as they attempt to protect valuable trade secrets in this unprecedented environment.