A MAN caught with a handgun has been spared prison due to the “tardy” and “highly unsatisfactory” actions of the police.

Thomas Parry was 17 when the weapon was found at his Bicester home in February 2010, but was not charged until July this year because a police expert initially identified the gun as a completely legal starter’s pistol.

Judge Charles Harris, who was shown pictures of the gun, described it as a “small automatic pistol” and said the weapon’s original analyst “could not have been much of an expert”.

Parry, now 20, admitted possessing a prohibited firearm and was sentenced at Oxford Crown Court on Monday.

The mandatory minimum sentence for such an offence is three years in jail for juveniles and five years for adults.

However, Judge Harris said the age of the offence and the actions of the police constituted “exceptional circumstances” and suspended Parry’s jail term.

Prosecutor Rachel Drake said: “On February 16, 2010, police had reason to attend the defendant’s home in Bicester as a result of a domestic incident being reported.

“This item was recovered from a bedside drawer.”

She added: “The item was wrongly identified as being a starter’s pistol. It languished awaiting destruction and it was only when officers came to formally destroy it they appreciated it actually fell within the firearms legislation.”

Judge Harris said: “I would have thought a fairly cursory look at a weapon like this would be able to tell whether or not it’s a starter’s pistol.”

Parry, now living in Gossway Fields, Kirtlington, told police he had been looking after the gun for a drug dealer who sold him cannabis.

The court heard that man has since been jailed and deported.

Trudi Yeatman, defending, said the her client, who has committed offences of battery and criminal damage since the gun was found, did not have any ammunition for it.

She added: “He was under considerable pressure to hide this weapon on behalf of someone who was supplying him with cannabis and to whom he owed money.”

Judge Harris gave Parry a year’s jail, suspended for 18 months, with 200 hours’ unpaid work.

He said the circumstances of the investigation were “highly unsatisfactory” and police were “exceptionally tardy in analysing the weapon they had”.

Police spokesman Chris Kearney: “We will take on board the comments of the judge and review the circumstances of the case. “While acknowledging there appears to have been a delay, the fact the weapon was seized and removed from the streets is a positive outcome.”