An appellate court ruled Thursday that a federal judge in New Orleans committed a “legal error” last year when he granted a new trial to a Miami man serving life in prison for using his popular custom auto shop as a hub for interstate shipments of cocaine.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a highly unusual ruling by U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon that tossed out the life sentence Fallon gave in 1995 to Rolando “Roly” Fernandez, who was convicted in New Orleans in a drug-trafficking conspiracy involving the Medellín cartel of Colombia.

Fallon, who presided over Fernandez’s trial in his first year as a federal judge, said last year that he would not have meted out such a harsh sentence had Fernandez been tried separately from drug kingpin Luis Sensat, and he faulted himself for overlooking a critical claim in Fernandez’s first motion for a new trial.

The 5th Circuit, however, agreed with federal prosecutors that Fernandez had been “procedurally barred” from even pursuing his latest court challenge. “By concluding otherwise, (Fallon) made a legal error, and in doing so, abused (his) discretion,” the appellate court held. “We must reverse.”

Fernandez’s defense attorney, Robin Schulberg, of Covington, said late Thursday that she and her client were “really disappointed” at the ruling.

“Roly Fernandez is somebody who should not be in prison any longer,” Schulberg said by phone. “He’s got a perfect prison record over 20 years, and he’s completely rehabilitated.”

A widely known entrepreneur in South Florida, Fernandez had attracted a prestigious clientele and celebrities to a custom shop that serviced exotic cars, including some featured in the TV series “Miami Vice.” Federal agents, however, accused him of fashioning hidden compartments in vehicles where massive amounts of cocaine and cash could be secreted.

Federal prosecutors in New Orleans portrayed Fernandez as a ranking lieutenant and chief money launderer in the Sensat drug syndicate who was responsible for the smuggling of thousands of kilograms of cocaine.

Fernandez and Sensat had been accused of building a network of drug couriers, many of whom were taken into custody in New Orleans and began cooperating with the authorities.

Fernandez, who had never been arrested before the federal case, denied wrongdoing at his trial and claimed to have known Sensat only as a customer. “Never done anything with cocaine in my entire life,” he said.

Fallon said in 1995 that Fernandez and Sensat both deserved life in prison due in part to the “extraordinary quantity of cocaine involved and the number of lives (they) adversely affected while attempting to seek illicit profit.”

Schulberg, the defense attorney, said Fernandez may still qualify for a reduced sentence under new federal guidelines for drug cases.

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.