Defense attorneys for two Northern Virginians posed a novel question to a federal judge yesterday: Why should the defendants, convicted Tuesday of distributing obscene materials, be asked to give up more than $2 million in assets just because $200 worth of tapes and magazines did not meet the moral standards of their community?

The conviction of Dennis E. and Barbara A. Pryba of Lorton on racketeering charges for the distribution of obscene materials was considered a victory in U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese III's efforts to crack down on pornography.

But the guilty verdicts, which allow the government to confiscate all assets gained through the defendants' racketeering enterprise, were only half the battle.

Defense attorneys argued yesterday before U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III that the government is entitled to seize only assets that prosecutors can show came from the proceeds of the sale or rental of the four videotapes and six magazines that the jury found obscene.

Everything else sold by the defendants, whether sexually explicit or not, is protected by the First Amendment because it has not been judged obscene by a jury, defense attorneys J. Frederick Sinclair and William Cummings, argued. Thus, the property to be forfeited by the defendants would be small.

In response, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lawrence J. Leiser argued that the government, using circumstantial evidence, will prove to the jury next week that everything sold and rented in the Prybas' adult book stores since 1973 was similar to the items at trial, and therefore obscene.

Because the Prybas had no other source of income, their entire assets should be forfeited, Leiser said.

The Prybas own and operate three area adult book stores and nine video outlets, known as Video Rental Centers. In addition to forfeiture of assets, they face up to 95 years in prison.

The jury will reconvene Monday to decide which of the Prybas' assets, including a $2 million house, several vehicles and the book and video stores, should be forfeited to the government because of their racketeering conviction.

As part of his promise to combat "an explosion of obscenity," Meese took up a recommendation from his Commission on Pornography to use racketeering charges against a distributor of obscene materials because it permits the government to seize the convicted defendant's assets and thus close down his business.

In its final report, the commission noted that racketeering forfeitures "would be one of the strongest weapons in the prosecution arsenal and could, in appropriate cases, virtually eliminate a large-scale pornography operation."

Asset forfeiture has been widely used in racketeering convictions of major drug dealers and organized crime figures. But this is the first time it has been applied to a federal obscenity conviction, which raises new legal questions because the First Amendment protects all materials that a jury has not judged to be obscene.

The jury found all four of the videotapes obscene, but only six of the nine magazines presented by prosecutors. Proceeds from those 10 obscene items amounted to about $200, the lawyers said. Both sides agreed that many of the videotapes rented by the Prybas, such as "Star Wars," were for family viewing.

The evidence at trial, Cummings said, "was pretty clear the Prybas were in the business of dealing in sexually explicit materials . . . but that does not make the materials {they sold for many years} necessarily obscene."

A third defendant, Jennifer G. Williams, was also convicted of racketeering Tuesday. But Williams, who worked as a bookkeeper and payroll clerk for the Prybas, is not contesting the government's seizure of her assets because they include only her office at the business. Williams faces up to 75 years in prison.

The prosecutor likened the use of circumstantial evidence in the forfeiture hearing to drug cases in which prosecutors have no drugs in court, but defendants are found guilty.

The use of circumstantial evidence at next week's forfeiture hearing, the judge responded, "has given me some concern in this matter." He noted that obscenity cases differed from drug cases because "cocaine doesn't have presumptive protection of the First Amendment."

In a pretrial ruling two weeks ago, Ellis found that the racketeering forfeiture provision is not an unconstitutional threat to free speech, but he left open the question of how far the government's confiscation of assets can reach.

"The fact that racketeering activity involves expressive conduct is irrelevant," Ellis wrote, ruling that even those materials in a distributor's inventory that have not been judged obscene by a jury can be seized as punishment.

However, Ellis also said that to be constitutionally applied, asset forfeiture must be "construed to reach the ill-gotten gains of racketeering activity."

Bruce Ennis, a Washington lawyer and specialist in First Amendment laws, called this the pivotal issue in the Pryba case. If Ellis applies a narrow interpretation of the racketeering law's forfeiture provision, Ennis said, "the Prybas won't forfeit very much . . . . And if that happens, I think the First Amendment will have survived.

"But if the judge broadens that ruling to include any material that is 'similar to' the material that has been judged obscene," Ennis added, "then I think that would be a serious blow to the First Amendment."

Maxwell Lillienstein, attorney for the American Booksellers Association, said the Pryba decision poses a grave threat to the First Amendment and endangers mainstream booksellers as well as sellers of adult materials.

"The threat {of confiscation} is so enormous that I can see mainstream bookstores screening out any sexually explicit material, whether it is obscene or not," Lillienstein said. "I can't see any mainstream bookstores carrying Playboy or Penthouse," he said, adding that "the real threat here is self-censorship."

Owners and managers of several Northern Virginia video rental stores that specialize in mainstream films but carry a small selection of adult-oriented titles said they weren't expecting Tuesday's conviction to have a dramatic impact on their businesses.

Some in the video business, however, noted the difficulty in determining the line between legitimate adult videos and those that authorities are likely to consider obscene.

"There's no clear definition," said Lila Raj, the owner of a Falls Church-area video store. He said he rents some "soft-core" videos, but does not display the more explicit video covers.

Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. said yesterday that it is improbable that owners of small video stores would be convicted under the racketeering law, because it requires a pattern of related convictions.

When authorities receive compaints about a video store renting possibly obscene films, Horan said, police notify the owner of the complaints but make no arrests. In nearly all cases, the prosecutor said, owners accede to the complaints by removing the offensive films.

Staff writer John Harris contributed to this report.