When Paul William Peehi answered the phone he had just stolen he didn't expect the call to be from police telling him to take the phone back to Whangārei police station, where he had just taken it from.

Temptation got a bit too much for Peehi when he picked up an unattended phone and slid it into his pocket at the front counter of the Whangārei police station.

A woman inadvertently left her cellphone there but Peehi may or may not have been aware of CCTV cameras that would have picked up his opportunistic act.

Police, however, didn't have to even rely on the recording devices to solve the crime.

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They phoned the stolen phone's number and told him to go back to the station and he returned — with the stolen cellphone.

Peehi, 38, pleaded guilty in the Whangārei District Court to one charge of theft from person and was sentenced to 70 hours' community work.

The maximum penalty for the charge under the Crimes Act is three months in prison.

Judge John McDonald said Peehi ought to have known about the presence of CCTV cameras when he decided to steal the phone.

According to the police summary of facts, Peehi was at the station about 1.45pm on January 7.

A woman inadvertently left her phone on the counter after making an inquiry.

Peehi was next in line behind her and moved up, uplifted the phone, and left the station.

Police identified him from the CCTV footage and rang Peehi and told him to return to the station.

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He was arrested upon his return and told police he was going to sell the phone and buy food because he was hungry.