File image of former Google and Uber engineer Anthony Levandowski. | Photo: Justin Sullivan | Bloomberg via Getty Images
File image of former Google and Uber engineer Anthony Levandowski. | Photo: Justin Sullivan | Bloomberg via Getty Images
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San Francisco: Autonomous driving engineer Anthony Levandowski was ordered to spend 18 months in prison for stealing trade secrets from Google as he defected to Uber Technologies Inc., in one of the highest-profile criminal cases to hit Silicon Valley.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco imposed the sentence Tuesday after Levandowski pleaded for mercy and prosecutors said anything short of locking him up would render similar crimes by future engineers a mere cost of doing business. Alsup subtracted nine months from what government lawyers wanted, and said the engineer should serve his term only once the coronavirus has been wiped away from prisons.

The 40-year-old father of two’s downfall is a saga of avarice and betrayal that left all involved looking bad.

“This was the biggest trade-secret crime I have ever seen,” Alsup said, citing his decades of experience as a defense lawyer and judge. “It was massive in scale,” with the stolen trade secrets amounting to “a game plan that the opposing coach would love to have.”

The judge also expressed a deep admiration for Levandowski, repeatedly calling him a “brilliant engineer,” and “maybe the best I have ever seen.” Telling him that “it pains me to do this to you,” Alsup explained that in white-collar cases especially, deterring would-be thieves is paramount. The judge ordered the engineer to give “Why I went to federal prison” speeches to the public.

Levandowski’s guilty plea, after reaching a deal with prosecutors earlier this year, leaves him a bankrupted convicted felon. His last few years of courtroom battles, he said in a letter to Alsup, have been a “grueling lesson in humility.” Levandowski had asked for a sentence of home confinement due to Covid-19 infections in prisons that he said could amount to a “death sentence.”

At Tuesday’s hearing, Levandowski apologized to former colleagues at Google whom he said he betrayed, and to his family and friends.