UK court frees golf ball 'thief'
LONDON, England -- A British man sent to prison for retrieving lost balls from golf course lakes and selling them has had his prison sentence quashed on appeal.
John Collinson, 36, who was released on bail on May 3 pending an appeal against his six-month jail sentence, appeared before the Court of Appeal on Monday.
The two judges imposed a two-year conditional discharge and said Collinson does not have to return to prison, but warned him to avoid further "clandestine diving expeditions."
Collinson and his colleague Terry Rostron, 24, fished 1,158 balls from Lily Pond at Whetstone Golf Club, Leicester, last year.
He was jailed at Leicester Crown Court on April 25 after being found guilty of theft by a jury.
But the Court of Appeal agreed with Collinson's barrister that the sentence was "disproportionate" to the offence and a non-custodial sentence was more appropriate.
However, Lord Justice Potter warned that the court did not regard the offences as "trivial" and its decision to impose a conditional discharge was not a "let-off" and should be seen as a deterrent to similar night-time operations.
A member of Collinson's legal team described him as "a very happy man" after the sentence was quashed.
The case attracted much media interest and Collinson received widespread support from the public.
Professional golfer Colin Montgomerie told London's Daily Mail newspaper that golf balls lost in lakes were "finders keepers."
The Leicester court heard how he donned a wetsuit and flippers and went on nocturnal diving expeditions to collect golf balls and sell them on.
His defence was that the balls were abandoned and there was no dishonest intent in retrieving them.
Collinson, who has also lodged an appeal against conviction, was convicted of one count of theft and one of going equipped.
He served nine days of the sentence before being released on bail.
The court heard that for 10 years Collinson made a modest living diving for lost golf balls and selling them for 15 pence (20 cents) each.
He made roughly £15,000 ($21,450) a year collecting balls at courses throughout the country.
Rostron, also found guilty of theft, was given a conditional discharge, too.
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