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Paul Martikainen awoke the morning of Dec. 1, 2009, about 120 miles southwest of Florida - and surrounded by the U.S. Coast Guard.

It was the end of a massive 2 1/2-day search in the Gulf of Mexico for the father accused of kidnapping his 3-year-old son. Authorities say he stole Luke Finch from the boy's mother in Cocoa, took him to a St. Petersburg marina and then set sail for Mexico.

Martikainen does not dispute most of that. Last year in Orlando federal court, he pleaded guilty to one count of international parental kidnapping. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison in part for "fleeing from a law enforcement officer," as federal law put it.

But that sentence was vacated Tuesday by a federal appellate court on novel legal grounds: Martikainen was not actually fleeing law enforcement when he tried to sail for Mexico with his kidnapped son, according to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

"Although the record supports the district court's finding that Martikainen endangered his son during his sailing expedition," the appellate judges wrote, "we conclude that Martikainen did not do so while knowingly fleeing a law enforcement officer and was unaware of any pursuit by the Coast Guard agents until the pursuit was over."

In other words, Martikainen didn't know the Coast Guard was chasing after him until it found him. Therefore there was no chase - at least not on his end.

That wasn't exactly the Coast Guard's recollection. It searched a 22,000-square-mile zone by air and sea. An HC-130 Coast Guard plane spotted the boat with infrared imaging technology and directed two cutters to its position in the dead of night.

When Martikainen awoke and found himself surrounded by armed Coast Guardsmen, he promptly surrendered - a fact the appellate court noted in its opinion that there was no pursuit.

The "fleeing a law enforcement officer" language in federal law was used by the state to enhance Martikainen's sentence. But Robert Batey, a professor at Stetson University College of Law, said it's not unusual to see a sentence overturned on those grounds.

Federal sentencing guidelines, according to Batey, are very specific when it comes to what defendants can and cannot be sentenced for.

Martikainen, 36, is currently being held at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex 60 miles northeast of Tampa.

He will be resentenced at a later date. While he could get 30 months again, Batey said he expects the court will hand down a lesser sentence.