A sneak thief was caught red-handed after he stole a £15,000 surveying device from a house in Barnstaple and walked straight into the owner in the street outside.

Exeter Crown Court heard that Michael Warner thought the house was empty and the front door had been left unlocked but in reality the owner was busy moving items to his car to take to the tip.

He was returning to pick up more when he spotted Warner and another man leaving his home with his laptop and the laser, which had been issued to him by his employers.

He demanded them back and took a photograph of the intruders which enabled the police to track down Warner, who admitted the break-in and said he wanted money to buy drugs.

Warner, aged 41, of Pulchrass Street, Barnstaple, admitted burglary and was sentenced to six months in jail, suspended for 18 months by Judge Peter Johnson at Exeter Crown Court.

He told him: “On the day in question you were with your co-defendant and it seems the two of you were trying doors. You came upon one which was open and took high value items.

“The owner surprised you in the street when he saw you and challenged you. Happily, he was able to get the objects back, so they were only in your possession for a short time.”

The judge said he was suspending the sentence because Warner has not been in trouble for many years and has sought help for his drug problem.

Rachel Drake, prosecuting, said the burglary took place at 2.30pm at a house where the front door was temporarily unlocked while the owner loaded his car with rubbish to take to the tip.

She said: “The householder saw two men walking towards him carrying the laser and his laptop, both equipment supplied to him by his employer and which he had left in his dining room.

“He challenged the men and took back the items and was able to take a photograph of them. There was quite a vocal exchange.”

Emily Pitts, defending, said Warner had overcome difficulties in his early life to become a hard-working maintenance man until he suffered an illness that required brain surgery.

He struggled to return to normality and fell into drug use, which led to this offence. He is now working with the addiction service Together and getting support from the Freedom Centre in Barnstaple.