SAN FRANCISCO -- The prosecution of Anthony Levandowski will be overseen by the judge who cautioned 2 1/2 years ago that that the former Uber Technologies Inc. engineer “was looking at jail time” over allegations of trade-secret theft.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup’s warning proved prescient: Levandowski, a pioneer of driverless car technology, was indicted last week. While his lawyers have denied the charges, the engineer faces up to a decade in prison if he’s convicted of any of the theft charges in his 33-count indictment.
But the veteran San Francisco judge had a strong hand in making his prediction come true. In 2017, while handling a lawsuit brought by Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo that accused Uber of stealing its secret technology, the judge suggested that federal prosecutors investigate Levandowski for potential wrongdoing.
It was Waymo’s lawsuit that brought allegations of misconduct by Levandowski to light and Alsup’s referral to the Justice Department was a stepping stone to the indictment. Early in the litigation Alsup repeatedly expressed outrage and disbelief at the apparent brazenness of the theft. As more evidence was revealed, the judge’s tone moderated.
Waymo alleged that Levandowski -- while he worked for Waymo -- hatched a plan in 2015 with Uber for him to steal thousands of proprietary files, including the designs for lidar technology that helps driverless cars see their surroundings.
“You don’t get many cases where there is pretty direct proof that somebody downloaded 14,000 documents, and then left the next day,” Alsup said at a March 2017 hearing. At another hearing less than two weeks later, Alsup told lawyers for Uber, “Your guy is looking at jail time,” again referring to Levandowski. “I’m telling you, you’re looking at a serious problem.”
Alsup’s skepticism of Waymo’s claims grew as the company had difficulty proving that its secrets found their way into Uber’s autonomous driving technology. His suspicions of Levandowski cooled but never completely dissipated after Uber offered up a plausible theory behind Levandowski’s downloading of Google’s files.
Uber argued that Levandowski’s download was routine. The company’s lawyers told Alsup that if engineers wanted to download any piece of the driverless-car data they were working on, sometimes on personal laptops away from work, that the entire data-set of 14,000 files was at least initially automatically downloaded.
The lawsuit settled in the middle of a high-profile jury trial last year, with Uber agreeing to pay Waymo about a third of a percent of its equity.
Levandowski’s lead lawyer, Miles Ehrlich, didn’t object to Alsup handling the criminal case. Both Ehrlich and prosecutors said in filings that it’s efficient for the judge who developed expertise in the civil case to also preside over the criminal matter.
The defendant won approval Wednesday from a federal magistrate judge to remain free on $2 million bail while he awaits his trial. For now, he must keep wearing an electronic-monitoring bracelet on his ankle. He is due back in court Oct. 2 for another hearing.
Prosecutors last week said Levandowski might use his vast wealth and dual U.S.-French citizenship in to flee. On Wednesday the magistrate judge rejected their recommendation that Levandowski’s bail be increased to $10 million.
“For the government to label Anthony a flight risk -- after it had stopped Anthony from turning himself in to the marshals, just so they could stage a press conference a week later -- is more grandstanding and overreach, just like this misguided prosecution,” Ismail Ramsey, a lawyer for Levandowski, said in an emailed statement.
The civil case is Waymo LLC v. Uber Technologies Inc., 17-00939, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco). The criminal case is U.S.A. v. Levandowski, 19-cr-00377, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Jose).