PUTNAM COUNTY — By most measures, Putnam County’s K9 program is a proven success. Principally implemented by the sheriff’s office in response to growing concerns over the heroin/opiate epidemic plaguing the nation, the program has resulted in nearly 120 drug related charges since its inception last July. Add to that the public relations boon the charismatic dogs and handlers offer and sheriff’s office administrators count the roughly $30,000 spent to field two K9 teams money well spent.

“Just this year, (K9 Handler Troy Stevenson) and Nero were called out 36 times and there were 28 hits,” Sheriff Brian Siefker said.

But, as with any program still in its infancy, the inevitable stumble is expected, though unwanted.

In October of last year, Road Deputy Jared West — who himself is currently undergoing K9 handler training with the PCSO’s second K9, Kado — stopped a Defiance County woman. What West described as suspect behavior on the part of the passenger in the car prompted him to call in Stevenson and Nero. The passenger — Greg Hister, 41, Defiance, a felon who served prison time for murder — was illegally, as a consequence of his status as a felon, in possession of a handgun. It was Nero who alerted Stevenson and West to the presence of the firearm concealed under the driver’s seat.

Hister was charged with having a weapon under disability, a third-degree felony, and improper handling of a firearm in a vehicle, a felony of the fourth degree.

In January, Hister’s attorney, William Kluge, filed a motion to suppress evidence discovered as a consequence of that search, citing concerns about the manner in which the search was conducted and, more pointedly, with regard to the length of time it took to begin and conduct the search. On March 22, Putnam County Common Pleas Court Judge Randall Basinger issued a finding in favor of the defense, asserting that the results of the search were inadmissable.

“It’s okay to use the drug dog and conduct a free-air sniff,” Putnam County Prosecutor Gary Lammers said. “What they cannot do is extend the mission of the traffic stop. The judge in his belief said 10 to 15 minutes is what it should take and it took longer than that.”

Both Siefker and PCSO Chief Deputy Verl Warnimont described West as “aggressive” in an interview late last week, but expressed the opinion that West acted appropriately.

“We’re trained to look for indicators,” Warnimont asserted, adding that, during the stop, Hister repeatedly answered questions directed at the driver of the vehicle. “That was the indicator to Jared on that stop. And it turned out to be something. He had a loaded weapon.”

That training, and more specifically the degree to which it has been put into practice, looms large in Lammer’s mind as to how Basinger came to his finding. He remarked that more experienced officers may have conducted the stop differently and performed better when testifying, been better prepared. For their part, Siefker and Stevenson expressed a similar concern about the prosecutor’s office, suggesting that the county’s new assistant prosecutor, Lily Shun, could have done more to prepare the sheriff’s deputies for the stand.

Ultimately, though, the question for both prosecutors and deputies is how such experiences could affect future prosecutions.

“It’s a concern that I’m looking at,” Lammers said. “Lily and I have been in discussions about that; what does this impact? What we concluded at this point is that the officers, whoever might be handling the K9 unit, needs to be prepared to answer technical, specific questions.”

While recognizing potential issues, Lammers expressed faith in the county’s finest and their ability to get the job done.

“I like my officers; I think they’re well-intentioned officers,” he said. “Do they stub their toes potentially and occasionally? Yeah. I mean, we’re all human.”