A TEENAGER who faced up to five years in prison for picking up a broken toy gun in the street told last night of his relief after walking free from court.

Michael Graham was warned to brace himself for a jail sentence last month when he admitted possessing an imitation firearm with intent to cause fear of violence.

He returned to court to be sentenced yesterday and a different judge imposed a community order, saying: “He wasn’t doing anything other than playing and messing with it.”

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Graham – who celebrated his freedom with a fish and chip lunch and a trip to the cinema with his girlfriend – said: “I was terrified about going to jail. I’ve been stressed for weeks.

“I never thought for one minute that when I picked up that piece of metal I was doing anything wrong.

“The prosecution must have cost thousands and it all seems like a big waste of money.”

Prosecutors defended their decision to pursue the charge, saying it was in the public interest and Graham's actions “resulted in the unnecessary deployment of significant police resources”.

Police swooped on Graham after a teacher saw the former pupil and friends walk past a primary school swinging the broken gun around his finger.

They traced him to a nearby hairdressers, asked him if he had a gun and – shocked and bemused – he showed them where he had thrown it away.

Judge Howard Crowson said: “His intention clearly wasn’t, as it turned out, in any way malicious. This is a man messing about with a piece of scrap. I have very strong views about firearms and imitation firearms in a public place, but I do not take the view that that is what this is.

It is something that is little more than a toy.

“It had the understandable effect on the teacher and she, at some range, took a very sensible precaution. It turns out she need not have worried.”

The alarm was raised as Graham, then aged 19, walked past Tilery Primary School, near his home in Swainby Road, Stockton, on the afternoon of November 28, last year.

His barrister, Duncan McReddie, said: “Mr Graham came upon this discarded shell of a particularly inferior type of air weapon on waste ground while he was walking along with his mates.

“He picked it up. He did not point it at anyone, but accepts he swung it around.”

A Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) spokesman said: “While the firearm used in this incident was eventually discovered to be a replica, this was not before Michael Graham had caused alarm and distress to teaching staff by brandishing it in the playground of a primary school.

“The subsequent report of a perceived firearms threat also resulted in the unnecessary deployment of significant police resources.

“In deciding whether to prosecute any criminal case, the CPS considers two factors; whether there is enough evidence to secure a successful conviction and whether it is in the public interest to do so.

“In this case there was sufficient evidence and, given the consequences of Graham’s actions, the public interest was significant enough to warrant pursuing a prosecution.”

Graham, an unemployed plasterer, was given a community order with 12 months of supervision.