On a recent weekday afternoon, it's a red Dodge Magnum that catches Palm Beach County Deputy Jason Karlecke's eye as he roams Interstate 95. The car comes up in the carpool lane from behind and screams past. The deputy's radar unit flashes its speed in red block numbers: 94 miles per hour.
"That would have never happened with a marked unit," says Karlecke, a cop for 16 years.
The Magnum starts weaving between lanes and cutting in front of other cars, still doing 90-some miles per hour. On come the lights and sirens in Karlecke's unmarked car and soon enough, the car is pulled over on the side of the road.
This driver gets off easy. He tells Karlecke he's rushing to a wreck a family member was involved in, and the deputy — noticing an upset woman in the passenger seat — believes him enough to give him a warning and send him on his way.
Under normal circumstances, the driver would have been cited for aggressive driving, which carries heftier penalties than a typical violation. State law says a drivers are aggressive if they commit two specific traffic violations at the same time. The violations include speeding, tailgating, running red lights or stop signs, improperly changing lanes, improperly passing and failing to yield the right of way.
Deputies assigned to the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office's Aggressive Driving Unit blend in with traffic in their unmarked patrol cars, looking for drivers who are the worst of the worst: the ones blowing the speed limit, darting in and out of lanes, tailing other cars or charging through red lights.
They don't pull over people who make petty mistakes. Their job is to stop the drivers who put everyone else on the road at risk.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office has had the squad since 2006. It started out with a four-year grant from the Department of Transportation. When that ran out, the sheriff's office absorbed the costs to keep it.
Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Teri Barbera said the unit has paid dividends, and the results are evident in the decreasing number of citations written for aggressive driving in Palm Beach County.
In 2011, sheriff's deputies issued 1,681 aggressive driving citations. In 2012, that number dropped to 1,393 and in 2013 it fell even further, to 1,118. That, Barbera said, is proof the approach is working and the main reason Sheriff Ric Bradshaw has kept the unit on the road.
Members of the aggressive driving squad are equipped with state-of-the-art gadgets that help gauge speed. The cars they drive have radar mounted on their dashboards and at their back windows, so they can get the speed of vehicles behind and in front of them.
They also carry binocular-like devices that use radar to clock a car's speed. You hold it up to your eyes, point it at a car and the speed pops up. These deputies are also trained in estimating a car's speed just by looking at it.
Six deputies are assigned to the unit. They patrol the interstate and roadways throughout the county, waiting for someone to drive aggressively.
It usually doesn't take long.
After stopping the Magnum, Karlecke steers his Dodge Charger toward West Palm Beach and takes a spin down Okeechobee Boulevard. He soon spots a black Volvo SUV blazing through a red light. The guy is going about 15 miles per hour over the speed limit.
Another aggressive driver.
There's no real demographic when it comes to them, Karlecke says. He's caught teenagers, senior citizens, men and women driving aggressively.
"It's people late to work; it's people late to an appointment," Karlecke said. "It can be absolutely anything, absolutely everybody — anyone who's impatient."
They almost always have an excuse. Once, a driver barreling down an empty rural road told Karlecke he was just keeping up with traffic. When the deputy pointed out that the road was clear for miles, the guy gestured ahead and said he was trying to catch up to the cars "way up there."
A man driving his motorcycle down Interstate 95 at 160 miles per hour — the fastest speed Karlecke's ever caught someone doing — said he was trying to "open it up."