Three days after his acquittal on all charges in a traffic ticket-fixing scheme, state Sen. John S. Joannou (D-Portsmouth) made a triumphant return to the Virginia Senate today as an honored and esteemed member.

His colleagues greeted Joannou with prolonged applause, hugs, ribbons, a cake, and a certain measure of relief that they wouldn't have to deal with sticky legal and ethical questions about their fellow legislator.

For the last two weeks, the question of what would happen if a federal jury in Norfolk found Joannou guilty of mail fraud and conspiracy charges had been a major subject of speculation among Capitol regulars and occupants of the legislators' office building.

The Senate leadership, according to legislative sources, had decided that under the Virginia Constitution, Joannou could not legally serve as a senator if convicted of the charges. The constitution provides that to hold office, a legislator must be eligible to vote -- and convicted felons can't vote.

But the sticking point, said sources, was determining at what point a person is actually convicted.

In federal court, the leadership decided, a person is convicted when a judge pronounces a sentence. That is generally about a month after a jury finds a defendant guilty.

During such an interval, the Senate's only option would have been to refer allegations against Joannou to a fact-finding ethics panel, which could make recommendations to the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections.

But with each passing day of deliberation, senators said, the Senate would be more and more embarrassed about the matter.

To the delight of some senators, Joannou's acquittal last Friday made the matter academic.

Joannou, 44, was philosophical about his legal battle during an interview in his beribboned office. "Maybe it doesn't sound normal," not to feel bitter, he said about the federal prosecution that had portrayed him as a crafty, close-mouthed lawyer, undeserving of sympathy and unworthy to practice law.

Joannou and his predecessor, Democrat Willard Moody, were acquitted in Norfolk U.S. District Court of charges they used bogus speedometer calibrations to get legal clients out of speeding charges.

"That was yesterday, and today is today and we are looking forward to tommorrow," he said. "Times cures everything."

When Joannou walked into the Senate chamber at a minute before noon, he found things much the same as when he left at the end of the last session. First, Sen. L. Douglas Wilder (D-Richmond) asked the senators to recognize members of the "Jack and Jill" teen group in the lobby.

Then Sen. Frank W. Nolen (D-New Hope), had the pages pass out packages of Reese's Pieces and Whatchamacallit candy bars in honor a candy plant in his district.

From his seat in the back row, Joannou smiled broadly.