A Maryland roofer sentenced to nine months in a Florida jail for violating the terms of his probation -- a probation incurred 23 years ago after he stole a pair of hubcaps -- was sent home yesterday, law enforcement officials said.

Patrick Clerkin, 41, of Brandywine, left a Pensacola jail after Escambia County Circuit Court Judge Jan Shackelford dismissed the case on a technicality.

"I'm going to meet him right now," said his wife, Bernadette, speaking by cell phone as she drove to Baltimore-Washington International Airport to fly to Florida.

A Pensacola police officer arrested Clerkin in 1981 when he was 19, and a judge sentenced him to three years' probation for stealing the hubcaps. A warrant was issued for Clerkin's arrest in 1984 after he failed to pay $363 in court costs and notify his probation officer that he had changed addresses.

Twenty years later, U.S. customs agents arrested Clerkin as he and his wife and their three children were completing a week-long Disney cruise in Port Canaveral, Fla. Clerkin said he was unaware of the warrant until the agents knocked on the family's cabin door.

More than two dozen of Clerkin's friends, relatives and clients wrote letters to the court, describing him as a trustworthy neighbor and businessman who had twice flown to Haiti to help build a church and a school.

In June, Shackelford sentenced Clerkin to nine months in jail, with a release date of Thanksgiving.

After The Washington Post published an article about the case last week, Clerkin's attorney, William Eddins, filed a motion to dismiss the charge, arguing that the 1984 warrant was served after Clerkin had completed his probation.

"The state could not show proof that it had been timely, so I dismissed the case and ordered that he be immediately released," Shackelford said.

The sentence originally imposed by Shackelford had been derided as "a travesty" by Dennis Williams, director of the jail where Clerkin was confined. A poll conducted last week by a Pensacola television station found that nearly 70 percent of viewers thought the punishment was too severe.

But Shackelford said yesterday that she remained comfortable with the sentence. The case, she said, was not about stealing hubcaps two decades ago but about "disappearing and basically being lucky for 20 years."

At the conclusion of yesterday's hearing, the judge said she reminded Clerkin that "he had absconded and that he was no different from any other absconder."

As soon as he was notified of the judge's order, Williams told his staff to prepare for Clerkin's release. "I told them to get him out of here," Williams said, "get him home where he belongs."