As the Des Moines police officer handcuffed him Monday night, Quan Tong was so nervous that he forgot his adopted language.
He didn’t go to prison. He went to the Polk County Jail. But it turns out he shouldn’t have been taken even there.
A data entry error at the Iowa Department of Transportation meant Tong, an ordained Catholic deacon, endured the sundry humiliations of an arrest — including being strip-searched, donning an orange jumpsuit and spending six hours in a cell.
Police and county officials were apologetic on Wednesday, but they also said the way the error was entered into the system, there was no way for police to avoid the nightmare scenario of putting an innocent man temporarily behind bars.
“The officer would have no way to question the information in front of him,” said Kim Snook, director of the Office of Driver Services for the Iowa Department of Transportation.
Tong, who lives in Urbandale with his wife, works at the Dahl’s Food Store on Ingersoll Avenue in Des Moines. One of his duties as a deacon for the Des Moines Archdiocese is delivering food to homebound people. Tong went on a delivery run on his way home from work Monday.
He stopped near the intersection of 21st Street and Forest Avenue. The night was cold (the low would reach 16 degrees, with gusty winds). Tong called the man to whom he was delivering food and asked him to unlock the front door so Tong could hustle over with the food and avoid the chill.
A patrol car passed Tong while he sat in his parked vehicle waiting for the man to unlock the door. The officer turned around and pulled in behind Tong. The officer asked for Tong’s driver’s license and ran it through the state computer. The computer reported that the license was revoked. To the officer, that meant Tong was operating a motor vehicle while his license was suspended or revoked. That’s a serious misdemeanor under Iowa law and means an instant trip to jail.
The officer took Tong into custody, but allowed him to call his wife, Thu Tong. The officer also delivered the food to the homebound person.
Tong protested his arrest. “I haven’t done anything wrong,” he said. “I was being treated like a criminal, but I hadn’t done anything wrong.”
Find out what happened here.