The judge overseeing the legal battle between Uber and Alphabet’s Waymo division has taken the unusual step of referring evidence against Uber in the case to criminal prosecutors.
In a brief order issued late on Thursday, Judge William Alsup said he had asked for the evidence presented by Waymo to be passed on to the US attorney “for investigation of possible theft of trade secrets based on the evidentiary record supplied thus far.”
The court takes no position on whether a prosecution is or is not warranted, a decision entirely up the US attorney.
If prosecutors take up the case, it would raise the stakes even further for Uber as it tries to fend off damaging claims of intellectual property theft from Waymo, which is a sister company of Google.
Judge Alsop also ruled late on Thursday on Waymo’s request for a preliminary injunction against Uber, an action that could seriously dent its driverless car effort, though the decision remained under seal while it was determined whether some parts of the order should be redacted.
Anthony Levandowski, the former Waymo executive at the centre of the accusations, stepped aside from part of his management responsibility at Uber recently as the ride hailing company tries to fend off the claims.
In a separate order on Thursday, judge Alsup said that Mr Levandowski’s decision to invoke his fifth amendment right against self incrimination had “obstructed and continues to obstruct both discovery and [Uber’s] ability to construct a complete narrative as to the fate of Waymo’s purloined files.”
Uber declined to comment on the criminal referral.
The order came as Judge Alsup rejected an attempt by Uber to have Waymo’s claims treated as an employment arbitration case, clearing the way for a full trial.
“We remain confident in our case and welcome the chance to talk about our independently developed technology in any forum,” Uber said.
The referral to criminal prosecutors comes days after it emerged that the Department of Justice has already begun another criminal investigation into Uber over a separate issue. That case concerns an piece of software developed by Uber called Greyball, which was designed to mislead regulators about the company’s operations.